Markets seek value, just like consumers. The problem is that different types of value are brought into opposition. For markets it is about economic value, whereas for consumers of a good it is about maximising the cost to use value ratio. At the beginning of the industrial era the dialectic between producer and consumer was: the former would supply a good that would last over time, in exchange for value. The mechanism jammed with mass industrialisation which, at the beginning of the 20th century, saturated the European economy’s richer and more appealing markets. At the time, certain sectors arrived at what economists define as “market saturation,” whereby the supply of a good is greater than its demand. This brings to a levelling of the growth curve of a market. Hence the birth of the substitution market, where consumers no longer buy goods because they are useful or because they did not already possess one, but rather as a substitute for a similar good. Clearly, for this scenario to work, the substitution has to be incentivised.
In early 20th century companies would verify the market saturation of certain goods such as light bulbs, which over the course of a couple of decades had entered all western households. In 1924, the companies producing light bulbs created the Phoebus cartel which, if on the one hand standardised the fittings, power and luminosity of light bulbs, it also established the ideal durability of light bulbs produced by all companies: 1,000 hours. Less than half the time that light bulbs could have been made to last in those years: 2,500 hours. Subsequently, other examples emerged, such as that of Dupont, the company that invented nylon and then went on to lead research on how to render it less resistant, seeing as its excessive durability was damaging the market. At the time, some theorised that planned obsolescence was imposed by law, so as to break out of the Great Depression of 1929.
Today the debate surrounding planned obsolescence is different and focuses on two cardinal points. The first is that of safeguarding resources, materials and energy. The second, which is less tackled and slightly controversial, regards the economic aspect of the debate. The GDP dogma, exemplified in exponential growth, is in fact a cornerstone of both economics and politics, notwithstanding the fact that it has been challenged for over half a century. And the few cracks that begin to emerge in international forums are just the first signs. For example, the French president Emmanuel Macron, on the 24th of February 2018 in Davos, launched some timid critiques of globalisation and growth that only pushes for an unbalanced redistribution of income and the polarisation of the rich and the poor. Macron is the President of France, a nation that has a law regarding planned obsolescence and a Minister for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition, who in 2017 at the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) financed the study – The long view – on product lifetime extension.
The approach of this research in product lifetime extension starts from a 360° vision that attempts to make a point about energy obsolescence. This is in reference to when is it necessary to change a good because a new and more energy efficient version has been introduced. The categories analysed are washing machines, fridges, televisions, smartphones, computers, clothes and vacuum cleaners. The result is that, in terms of energy efficiency, washing machines and fridges have to be used for at least ten years before they can be replaced with more efficient models whereas for televisions even more years are necessary. Today it makes more sense to keep old LED ones, seeing as the new 4k high definition models are less energy efficient.
On the other hand, all other products analysed are replaced for reasons that differ from “energy comparison.” Here the sinkhole of psychological planned obsolescence opens up. Namely, when one becomes convinced that an object can no longer satisfy his/her needs, needs which are often induced. This is an issue that is hard to define in a scientific manner. For example, the European Economic and Social Committee, which has embraced the battle against planned obsolescence for quite some time, has found only a few isolated cases in which it is possible to talk about well defined “models of accelerated consumption.” A recent study (Tröger, Wieser, Hübner, 2017) attempts to approach the phenomenon from a sociological perspective. Basically, relative to consumption of smartphones in Austria and by observing the time that passes between their first and last use, they highlight how societal acceleration influences the behaviour of consumers, directing them from times dictated by lifecycle to those of use. Before, an empirical study (Cooper, 2004) demonstrated how 30% of eliminated goods are still in working order, a percentage that increases to 60% for electronic goods. This is a problem of true analytical complexity.
From the point of view of physical durability of objects, it is in fact complex to determine whether inferior durability is down to planned obsolescence or computerised design that allows for the “nanometrical” dosage of production materials. Therefore, is there a desire for obsolescence or for industrial – and also environmental – efficiency, in the use of materials? An exemplary case is that of cars. The increased efficiency of vehicles is down to, mostly, a general lightening of cars, which reduces fuel consumption and pollution, but has also reduced the resistance to wear, whereas mechanised welding and varnishing of the chassis, together with a great use of plastic components, have made rust a distant memory.
Let us return to Austrian smartphones. From the analysis it emerges that the average use time of a smartphone is of 2.7 years, little more than that of a t-shirt (2.5 years) and of sandals (2.2 years). Printers and computers are at 4 and 4.1 years, cameras at 5.3 and cars at 7.5 years, whereas the longest-serving object is the cooking hob with 10.8 years. With regards to the reasons for changing a smartphone 31% of interviewees claim technical problems, which turn out to be genuine in about 10% of cases. Other than that, it is a question of functional decadence, such as those tied to the exhaustion of available memory, which doesn’t actually impede use. Of this residual 10%, 4% is down to faulty batteries that, all the more often, cannot be replaced. Only one user in three attempts to fix their phone. “We chose the point of view of consumers by interviewing families and giving one thousand people a questionnaire – says Harald Wieser of the University of Manchester, who participated in the research –. We discovered that durability isn’t a big problem for consumers and that many phones are changed before they break.” The problem of obsolescence, whose origin at this point could be either planned or desired, is more complex, as it becomes a sociological and above all a psychological matter.
Let’s move on to the technological aspect. A group of European researchers have conducted an investigation on how to perfect a methodology for measuring the durability of washing machines (Stamminger, Tecchio, Aedente, Matheiux, Niestrath, 2017). “We created this research to search for clues as to whether producers intentionally programme their products to break after a certain amount of years – says Rainer Stamminger, researcher at the University of Bonn –. The answer is yes and no. Yes, because producers during the design phase use requisites for the durability and resistance to stress. This is a common and consolidated planning practice, because you cannot use anything without defining this aspect.” And if on the one hand there is this awareness in the design, with regard to the investigation on planned obsolescence Stamminger is clear: “We found no proof that products are deliberately designed to break, but what we did find is the fact that there are design errors, that could be examples of bad design.” On this topic Stamminger quotes the renowned example of the 1,000 hour light bulb. “It isn’t a secret that by using thicker wire you would get more hours of use – concludes Stamminger – but, using a thicker wire requires more electricity to obtain the same amount of heat and the same amount of light. Therefore, it is necessary to reach a compromise between durability and energy consumption. Engineers have to consider the surrounding conditions, in this case the consumption of energy, during design.” And, even if there are no certainties on this front, researchers have noticed that, notwithstanding the average lifespan declared by producers of washing machines to be of 12 years, many of those present on the market last less than 5 years.
It therefore appears that, even with some clear examples of planned obsolescence such as with the light bulbs in the 20’s, nylon and ink cartridges for printers more recently to affirm that there is a systematic design for planned obsolescence, from a scientific point of view, is still a questionable matter.
However, there are some clues. Firstly, designers have a deep knowledge of materials and the possibilities that these give, also owing to their huge calculating potential, that enables them to programme the durability of goods (Kreiss, 2014). Then, one must consider the market dynamics.
The reduction in quality of materials offers an advantage for price and costs of production, whereas the durability gives a competitive advantage to brands in the long run. It is clear that, in a competitive and short term oriented market, companies will adjust accordingly, and therefore reduce the durability of goods. In this way, the consumer is instilled with an idea of average lifespan that is minimal and elected by the producer. Translation: all light bulbs last 1,000 hours, all socks brake, all cartridges for printers run out after exactly 1,000 copies and all cars last for 150,000 kilometres. In this way brands are able to reduce the risk of being associated with low quality products (Reischauser, 2011). Furthermore, the consumer is unable to make an informed choice, seeing as the information on average lifespan, on reparability, availability and cost of replacement parts over time and costs of use, is in the hands of the producer and not shared with the consumer.
Information on the lifecycle of a label
Putting lifecycle information on the label. Just change the energy labelling (Winzer, Schriddle, Kreiss, 2013) to indicate the predicted lifespan and the rate of reparability of the object in question, so as to give the consumer tools and increase the average lifespan of goods.
The proposal is contained in a European Parliament Directive of July 2017, where it is proposed as “supplementary information” and therefore voluntary. It is also found in the energy labelling reform, bolstered by the M5S Euro Parliamentary Dario Tamburrano, on maintenance, lifecycle and connectivity; which passed in the ITRE committee, always in the form of voluntary adhesion. All of which was dismantled in the negotiations with the United Sates, whereby the final text only has one reference to durability and environmental performance. All the rest was lost.
“The European legislation – explains Tamburrano – exists and has not been implemented for too long. It is missing the standards with which to assess the criteria of reparability, durability, and so on. However, the production rewards those who innovate and I hope that more careful producers get going and act as trend setters. The European Commission has to take charge of this evolution, which must not result in an increase in prices for consumers and has to find a balance with many different aspects. The end of planned obsolescence is to the circular economy what the end of subsidies for fossil fuels is to a transition to renewable energy.”
Even though there are no concrete projects, for now, on the part of the European commission there has been some initiative. In the field of Ecodesign 2016-2019, the Commission has pushed itself to explore the possibility of including horizontal criterion on durability, reparability and disassembly. Factors that have to be taken into consideration in the design of a product and communicated to consumers with labels.
Bakker C.A., C.S.C. Schuit, “The long view,” tinyurl.com/y9vvt6qj
Tröger N., H. Wieser, R. Hübner, “Smartphones are replaced more frequently than t-shirts,” tinyurl.com/y7orls66
Top image: OldDesignShop