In the late 1890’s, a manufacturing plant called Shelby Electric Company based in Shelby, Ohio, produced a 4 watt lightbulb with one main goal in mind. Sustainability. They wanted to make the perfect lightbulb. A lightbulb that would last forever. They wanted to share this with the world. It’s called the Centennial Light. It currently resides in a fire department in Livermore, California and the bulb is still fully functional and still shining. The irony is that it has outlasted all of the lightbulbs in the department as well as several webcams. How is this possible? Surely as technology increases we would have lightbulbs that lasted forever! Why do some only last a couple thousand hours? During the rise of the 20th century, lightbulb manufacturers were beginning to stagnate. No one was buying lightbulbs because the ones they previously bought were still working and there wasn’t a need to buy anymore. The manufacturers had to come up with something to protect their businesses and to keep selling more. In December of 1924, Philips, General Electric, Osram, and others got together and created the Phoebus cartel. It stated that lightbulbs had to have a maximum lifespan in order to ensure repeat business. Lightbulbs that were claimed to last forever were now reduced to 1,000 hours. The manufacturers had to devise a way to make their products weaker. They had to make sure they would break or die after a certain point. This was the beginning of Planned Obsolescence.
Since the Great Depression and the rise of consumerism, planned obsolescence was part of every business model. They had to have it in order to survive. All products even to this day have some form of planned obsolescence attached. In the classic of Death of a SalesmanWilly says, “Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it’s broken! I’m always in a race with the junkyard! I just finished paying for the car and it’s on its last legs. The refrigerator consumes belts like a goddam maniac. They time those things. They time them so when you finally paid for them, they’re used up.” Just a perfect example of planned obsolescence.
In 2001, Apple released their first iPod. A couple years later, a class action lawsuitwas filed against the company over its batteries. They only lasted a short while and the batteries were ‘unreplaceable’. The Neistat brothers were told when they called customer service that they should just buy a new iPod and that they wouldn’t replace the batteries in them. They launched a campaign called “iPod’s dirty secret” and spray painted on billboards, “iPod’s Unreplaceable Battery Lasts Only 18 Months” with a stencil. Apple had caved in and settled the case and were forced to give rebates and provide warranties for their products. Is this the beginning of the end of planned obsolescence?
Next time, look around at the products you have. Everything you may have may actually have a lifespan and are probably not the best, efficient or sustainable of products.
Economic rule: “Nothing produced can be allowed to maintain a lifespan longer than what can be endured in order to continue cyclical consumption.”
Examples of planned obsolescence:
- Ipod’s unreplaceble battery lasts only 18 months;
- Amazon Kindle unreplaceble battery starts to uncharge fast with low temperature;
Economy = economize? (to avoid waste, to conserve)
“The best possible goods at the lowest possible prices.”
Cost efficiency creates intrinsic obsolescence.
Product sustainability is inverse to economic growth.
Efficiency, sustainability and preservation are the enemies of our economic system.
The EESC calls for a total ban on planned obsolescence
For the first time, an EU institution is looking into the positive aspects of a total ban on planned obsolescence: more jobs, better consumer protection and a boost to sustainable development. The EESC has today issued an opinion on product lifetimes and consumer information to combat the business strategy of obsolescence.
Bulbs that burn out after a certain time, batteries that run out within a set period or clothes that quickly fall out of fashion are just a few examples of planned obsolescence – products that are designed to stop working within two or three years of their purchase, shortly after the expiry of their guarantee. Replacing these products means using up additional energy and resources, which generates more waste and harmful pollution.
Jobs at stake
Nowadays, obsolescence brings little if any advantage in terms of jobs. “Most of these products are manufactured outside Europe, by underpaid workers,” points out Mr Haber, the opinion’s co-rapporteur and a member of the EESC’s Consultative Commission on Industrial Change. “If we threw away less, we would have to repair more, creating thousands of jobs closer to home.”
Obsolescence is not always down to wear and tear. By its very nature, the fashion industry, for example, is built around consumer demand for new and different styles not the durability of individual garments. But even here, turnover is becoming faster and new models are often designed to make their predecessors look ugly or out-of-date.
In terms of concrete action, the EESC plans to organise a major European Round Table in 2014 involving all the relevant actors and covering all sectors including industry, distribution, finance, consumer associations and trade unions. The event will also include an open forum to allow EU citizens to express their own views.
Learn to mend
Mr Haber has encountered numerous products that are designed to stop working within two or three years of their purchase – shortly after the expiry of their guarantee. Replacing them means using up additional energy and resources and this generates more waste and harmful pollution. This has already incited consumers in several countries to take action.
“The EESC would like to see a total ban on products with built-in defects designed to end the product’s life,” explains Mr Libaert, the opinion’s rapporteur and a member of the EESC. He wants companies to make goods easier to repair through the supply of replacement parts, for example. And consumers should also be given better information about a product’s estimated life expectancy to allow them to make more informed purchasing decisions.
Ideally, the Committee proposes a labelling system that would guarantee a minimum product lifetime – at present this is not a legal requirement. “Companies need to do a lot of research to guarantee the lifetime of a product and at present they do not do enough,” Mr Haber observes. Furthermore, manufacturers should also cover the cost of recycling if their goods have an expected lifetime of less than five years.
Reasons for action
From an environmental perspective, Europe’s consumption of natural resources has increased by some 50 % over the last 30 years: we consume 43 kg of resources per person per day, compared with just 10 kg per person in Africa. In social terms, the rapid disposability of consumer goods has encouraged purchasing on credit, leading to unprecedented levels of personal debt.
Damage to public health is not only caused by local waste disposal and incineration but also by the practice of exporting waste, sometimes illegally, to developing countries that have less stringent regulations. Culturally, perceptions of in-built obsolescence are eroding consumer trust in industry. Lastly, Europe’s economy is being undermined by imports of products with a short lifetime. “By tackling this issue, the EU would be offering its companies a way of standing out from its competitors by effectively putting sustainability into practice.”
“Our purpose is to help improve confidence in our European businesses,” concludes Mr Libaert. But at the same time, the EESC wants to drive the EU towards an economic transition “from a wasteful society to one that is sustainable, where growth is geared towards consumer needs – with a people-oriented approach – and is not an end in itself.”