Many of the products that we purchase are engineered to fail. Planned obsolescence, a strategy of companies to sell products that require replacing, is ingrained into nearly all of our technology products: ink cartridges, textbooks, short-lasting light bulbs, cars, and more. Companies can get away with making their products defective just years after release since they are of high quality at release.
Take iPhones, for example. Apple designs its iPhone to be as difficult as possible to repair, forcing customers to pay a specialist or Apple a large sum of money to do the repairs. If the customer rejects paying for repairs, they can buy the phone that Apple releases annually. Further evidence of planned obsolescence is that Apple implemented a feature to lower the speeds of phones as the battery degrades to maximize usage—but most people do not know about this until Apple was sued and revealed their deceptive tactic.
A few months ago, I dealt with these cruel tactics myself. One morning, I grabbed my phone and found that FaceID did not work, and I needed to download their software update since it “could fix the bug”. However, it did not, so I went to the Apple store after receiving messages to go there to get it fixed. There, I was told by an Apple sales representative that he would either need over $100 to fix it or I would need to get a new phone. Apple profits from this trap that they set, stealing money out of their customers’ pockets—and, if this was not bad enough, dumping more toxic electrical waste, harming our communities and the planet.
There are no legal actions taken against these industries because these companies are major parts of our economy—and history reveals why this is the case. In 1932, Bernard London first coined the term planned obsolescence with his essay “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence”. London revealed how they could end the Great Depression with planned obsolescence, stimulating economic growth by deliberately ensuring that the current version of a product will become out of date or useless within a known period.
This logic still holds true today: restrictions on planned obsolescence would slow economic productivity, reduce profits and raise prices. In our inflationary recession period—where eggs double in price in one year—the general public is more worried about keeping costs low, so public opinion would sway against this reform until we have broken out of our nearing recession. However, in the long term, the consumer could benefit from having to purchase fewer products overall, even though they could be more expensive.
What is economically beneficial is not always ethical or sustainable. I wish our country would put more focus on outlawing planned obsolescence to protect our nation and poorer nations that take our waste. Take the environmental perspective: once an Apple product is determined useless, it is thrown away and sent to waste plants or set sail to the poorest nations on the horizon. Most modern technology is assembled with toxic metals, so reducing waste would only work if these companies start programs to repurchase their old products and recycle the toxic metals. With this new system, companies will have to pay the environmental cost of their business model. If reform leans against large corporate entities, planned obsolescence could become illegal, and companies would be forced to prioritize the planet and the customer over profits, ultimately helping people everywhere.