Last year, my partner and I committed to a no-shopping year whose details are outlined in this week's feature (p. 38). The idea was to make do with what we had and not buy anything new (or used) unless it was essential (e.g., required for work). As the year progressed and things in our lives broke down or wore out, it became apparent how many we might have unconsciously replaced without thinking. As a result, one of many issues our exercise brought into sharp focus was the quality and durability of our typical consumer purchases. Some things died after remaining serviceable longer than expected, but most—mainly clothing items—failed far earlier than they should have given the original price and/or amount of use. The old adage "you get what you pay for" was suddenly writ large—but was there something else at play as well?
I don't remember which elementary school grade it was, but I do recall my incredulity when, back in the 1970s, our teacher explained something called "planned obsolescence" to the class. It must have been at a time when my childhood notions of nobility in the adult world were already collapsing, because I was agog, aghast and angry at the entire concept, feeling it must be the cynical and avaricious nadir of humanity to actually engineer something to prematurely quit functioning or purposely become unfashionable, forcing its replacement. In those days, better-engineered vehicles and electronics from Japan and Europe were becoming commonplace in the North American market, requiring manufacturers here to shelve the idea of artificially induced lifespans and make more durable products. Nevertheless, planned obsolescence would become unavoidably entrenched in the landscape of consumerism—particularly among the oligopolies of the digital world—and is here to stay. While shamelessly contributing to accelerated destruction of the planet, the idea's history is a fascinating drama featuring a cast of both friends and foes.
While "planned obsolescence" is often attributed to auto magnate Alfred P. Sloan Jr. of General Motors, who appropriated the bicycle industry's idea of annual cosmetic changes to drive new purchases in the late 1920s, he didn't actually coin the term, preferring "dynamic obsolescence" instead. Thus, the phrase's first real use came in the title of a 1932 pamphlet essay by economist Bernard London, "Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence," in which he argued that governments should consider imposing legal obsolescence on consumer goods to stimulate the economy (can you imagine?). However, London's treatise was obscure, and it was industrial designer Brooks Stevens who turned "planned obsolescence" into a catchphrase with a definition while speaking at an advertising conference in 1954: "Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary." Fortunately, this hubristic spin was soon reversed by the public and the term used as a derision for things that broke easily or went out of fashion in record time.
Planned obsolescence was now picked apart as a systematic attempt by business to handcuff consumers to a lifestyle of waste, debt, and permanent discontent in the 1960 exposé The Waste Makers by cultural critic Vance Packard. Even then, Packard imagined the concept as subdivided, and today several categories are recognized with familiar examples: contrived durability (designing something to deteriorate); repair prevention (via proprietary hardware and prohibitive costs—think iPhones); perceived obsolescence (new styles that decrease the desirability of "unfashionable" items); systemic obsolescence (altering a system in such a way as to make items tied to it difficult or impossible to use—e.g., software updates); programmed obsolescence (items programmed to stop working far before they actually wear out).
If this all seems a bit insidious, it is. If you think you're getting screwed by cellphone and computer manufacturers, you are (e.g., a few years ago both my $4,000 slide scanner and an expensive script-writing program became obsolete when I unknowingly updated the operating system of my laptop). If you think your jeans wear out, shoe soles delaminate, and sunglasses break faster than they used to, you're also right. And it's not being ignored. In 2015, France passed legislation on certain product lifespans that essentially creates a minimum two-year warranty, and the EU is examining a similar move.
The lessons of quality are clear: eschew unnecessary style and fashion changes, buy well-made products that will last. You'll save money in the end, and you may help save the planet.
Leslie Anthony is a science/environment writer and author who holds a doctorate in connecting the dots.