I did two things that clashed rather badly the other day.
First, I watched David Attenborough’s documentary ’Our Planet’, a rather definitive assessment of the destructive impact we’ve had on the natural world over the past fifty years, and how quickly. (In one depressing example, an entire Madagascar forrest ecosystem disappeared in the time it took the production team to finish filming and then carry out post-production and release of the documentary).
Shortly afterwards, on my way to the train station, I walked through one of the shopping precincts in Sydney. For every object that I saw on display, it was as if I could see the chain of production that stretched out behind it, the resources consumed and the ecosystems impacted.
The consumption of the Earth’s resources is usually in aid of how we make the things that fill our world. So as I walked through a mall full of disposable goods, I got thinking about a dark and ingenious concept known as planned obsolescence. I think it holds the key to either environmental destruction or salvation. It might be both. Let’s unpack this a little.
Obsolescence is when something has aged, worn out or fallen into disuse. The word comes from the Latin obsoletus, which means ‘grown old.’ For much of our technological history, the purposeful adulteration or weakening of something was a crime. In the Middle Ages, watering down the beer or affecting the quality of bread might be punishable by death. This applied also to the quality of other goods produced. Guilds were set up to collectively protect the guild workers, but also ensure a consistent quality of goods. Guild members had long apprenticeships to ensure they learned their craft well and imparted their skills in high quality products.
The story started to change from about 1850, as we entered the Industrial Revolution. Products were no longer the purview of independent craftspeople, but the outputs of ever larger factories and methods of mass production. However, it was only a hundred years later, post World War II, that a glut of post-war production capability created a fundamental problem. People simply weren’t buying enough things to match production capabilities. Quite a few solutions to that problem were developed in the 1950s. One of these was planned obsolsence.
Victor Papanek, advocate of ecologically sensitive design practices, suggested in 1980 in his work ‘Design For The Real World’, that the idea of planned obsolescence started with cars. Post World War II equipment used to press out the core components of cars typically wore out in a reliable three year cycle. It created the perfect excuse for stylistic changes every three years. Stylistic changes that would be packaged with forceful advertising to encourage car owners to purchase on a regular three-year cycle. It isn’t a large jump of the imagination to consider how this applies to clothes, electronics, furniture, kitchen appliances or any other thing that can be restyled and remarketed.
Vince Packered, writing in the 1960s in a seminal book, ‘The Waste Makers’, cites an industrial designer of the time,
‘Our whole economy is based on planned obsolescence… We make good products, we induce people to buy them, and then next year we deliberately introduce something that will make these products old fashioned, out of date, obsolete.’
Stylistic or feature changes are only one aspect of planned obsolescence. Vince Packered notes how obsolescence by design can also apply to how products are made, making it a near guarantee they will break with basic use. How many of us have used some thing or another only to have it rip, tear, break or stop working after basic use?
My personal example is headphones. It doesn’t seem to matter how much money I spend, headphones never seem to last beyond a year or so. Because the cost is low enough and we’ve become used to the concept, our first reaction is usually to go and buy another pair. Think about it for a moment though. There is the tremendous chain of resource acquisition, production and transportation that it took to bring that thing into our lives. There is the cost to our natural ecosystems. All this, only to have something end up in a landfill.
In an extreme example of agricultural obsolescence, agricultural conglomerate Monsanto (now owned by pharmacutical giant Bayer) has in the past explored the concept of ‘terminator seeds.’ Seeds with in-built genetic triggers that render the plants sterile after one season. Typically, Monsanto focused on using seed patents and contracts to force farmers to buy new seeds each year. In a case focused specifically on the issue Monsanto defended its right to such practices. Terminator seeds aside, do manufacturers deliberately build flaws into products? The European Union has investigated whether it can implement “a total ban on products with built-in defects designed to end the product’s life.” So it seems someone is worried about the possibility.
Can planned obsolescence ever be a good thing? Based on its unpleasant character so far, you might think not. However, consider the contrast because a fuel intensive car from the 1980s and a cutting edge electric vehicle. It doesn’t seem like a good choice for everyone to continue to maintain a forty-year-old vehicle in an effort to avoid obsolescence, when a modern electric vehicle offers a much better future for personal transportation. Furthermore, as electric vehicles improve in efficiency and safety, there is a strong argument for upgrading to a new vehicle as often as the upgrades are available. This doesn’t feel specifically like planned obsolescence, rather it is a deliberate improvement; making things more efficient, safer and effective.
Knowing that we will still have things that reach the end of their lifespan puts pressure on how we reclaim products at the end of a cycle of production. If they exit to a landfill, then we are wasting all the resources that we invested in their manufacture. This means everything we design should have its eventual repair, upgrade or reclamation in mind. It is a sad indictment of this very idea that the most recent gadget from Samsung, the much heralded Galaxy Fold has an iFixit repairability score of 2 (out of 10).
I get that all of this may seem rather academic. Phones we upgrade every year, broken home appliances and clothing styles that change by the season. Some might dismiss these as side problems. However, the thing that started me down this line of thinking wasn’t actually about the things we make and then throw away. It was about the ecosystems that we destroy in doing it.
Planned obsolescence makes a fundamental assumption of infinite resources that can be converted to things. But ecosystems are not infinite. They are depleted and eventually destroyed, leaving nothing but barren dirt and rock behind. Surely it is obvious this equation does not balance? Quite simply, the onus is on all of us. Those of us responsible for how we design and make things and those of us who exert influence by what we buy and how we dispose of the things we buy.
Papnek, V. (1985) Design for the Real World, 2nd Edition. Academy Chicargo.
Mortimer, Ian (2008) The Time Traveller’s Guide to Midieval England. Random House: Great Britain
Packard, Vance (1960) The Waste Makers. Pelican: Great Britain
Car Photo by sergio souza on Unsplash
Our Planet: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9253866/