Ever wondered that no matter how careful you are with your gadgets, they inevitably stop working after a certain time. You have planned obsolescence to thank!
As the name suggests, Planned Obsolescence is a strategy of designing and manufacturing products in a way that make them extremely difficult and costly to repair and only last for a limited life span. This forces people to buy and replace them with new ones. Not only this, companies put their products on the obsolete list frequently by making them go out of date within a set time period or simply unfashionable, even as they keep introducing new and incrementally superior models.
There are a number of tactics that manufacturers employ to trick customers into buying new products. First is ‘adding superfluous features’ like slightly larger screens, an extra lens, or some other relatively minor feature in newer models. This nudges consumers towards buying a newer, slightly flashier device. Another is ‘software’. Oftentimes, the company introduces new software with new features that are incompatible with older versions of the device, hence making the device slower or less useful when compared to the newer models.
For example, tech giant Apple makes repair of its products extremely difficult, intentionally! The company uses proprietary screws, unibody enclosures, and some peculiar design techniques so that only Apple repair experts can take them apart, making repair costs very expensive. Reports suggest that the company makes it notoriously difficult to replace its batteries, by gluing them to other components and burying them beneath layers of complex, sensitive parts that increase the chances of screen and back panel breaking.
A growing number of people who noticed this unreasonable state of affairs decided to fight back or at least try. Consumer advocates, repair professionals, and many ordinary individuals came together to demand for legislation that would make it harder for companies to keep repair information proprietary. iFixit is a website that functions as a sort of repair Wiki, with some one million users sharing knowledge. They also provide repair instructions and DIY advice and tools on their YouTube channel.
Notably, the strategy of planned obsolescence is not a 21st-century concept. It can be traced back to 1924, when a General Motors executive in the United States, Alfred P. Sloan Jr suggested launching new models every year to keep sales moving, making people feel that they had to keep updating.
This strategy turned out to be very effective, as GM surpassed Ford’s sales by 1931, showing the potency of planned obsolescence, which was eagerly adopted by product designers worldwide. And today, the strategy is common in different sectors, be it electronics or the clothing manufacturing industry.
Planned obsolescence and environment
Planned obsolescence is not only adding extra cost for customers but also triggers the ever-growing problem of waste. It is easy to see that the devices and gadgets we throw away will add on to an ever growing mountain of e-waste, that contains harmful and poisonous chemicals such as mercury, cadmium, beryllium, and lead.
According to WEEE Forum, Global E-waste Monitor 2020 reported that an estimated 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of WEEE was generated in 2019, adding that global e-waste generation is growing annually by 2 Mt, or about 3 to 4%, a problem attributed to higher consumption rates of electronics, shorter product lifecycles and limited repair options.
However, now, there seems a ray of bright light at the end of this tunnel with many countries introducing a right to repair law.
With the “right to repair law” in place, companies have to provide complete documentation and access to manuals, schematics, and software updates to consumers. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are, as a result, bound by law to provide consumers and independent repair businesses equal access to repair documentation, diagnostics, tools, service parts and firmware.
Countries including the US, UK, and European Union have recognized the ‘right to repair’. Recently, the UK passed a law mandates all the electronic appliance manufacturers to provide consumers with spare parts for getting repairs done either by themselves or by the local repair shops. Australia also has repair cafes that provide free meeting places where volunteer repairmen gather to share their repairing skills. The European Union has a law that forces manufacturers to supply parts of products to professional repairmen for a period of 10 years.
The government of India is also planning to facilitate the right to repair in order to empower consumers to easily make self or third-party repairs. The Department of Consumer Affairs held its first meeting on July 13 wherein important sectors for the right to repair were identified. These include farming equipment, mobile phones or tablets, consumer durables, and automobiles or automobile equipment.