PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE: THE ULTIMATE ECONOMIC INEFFICIENCY

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David McMinn

Sometime ago, I was listening to a radio program on efficiency within the Australian economy. The commentator believed that financial markets were highly inefficient (a sentiment that I would agree with totally), but the economy functioned very effectively in delivering goods and services to the population. Initially, I agreed with the statement, but on further reflection I came to conclude that the capitalist economy was also very inefficient. The main culprit is planned obsolescence, whereby the profitability of companies is given higher priority than the welfare of consumers or the environment. 

An article on planned obsolescence was written for our local newspaper (And You Think Plastic Shopping Bags are Bad. see below). It is a utter economic travesty  to allow companies to produce and/or sell poor quality products that are designed to fail within a short period. The companies maintain their growing markets, but consumers and environment are the big losers.

Key Points on planned obsolescence

* Massive quantities of waste are generated every year, which consumers ultimately have to pay to get rid of.

* Consumers are forced to buy products that fail well before they need to.

* The Earth's scarce resources are depleted.

* In effect Australian consumers are paying huge subsidies to the profitability of manufacturers in China.

* Australia must maintain a high level of imports to meet the rapid turnover in consumer products. Thus we go further into debt so that consumers can have products they do not need.

Overall the situation is completely absurd. To my knowledge, no economic papers have been presented on the cost of planned obsolescence to the overall economy. However, such costs are likely to be huge due to the added waste disposal problems, the higher levels of imports and consumers paying for inferior products. 

AND YOU THINK PLASTIC SHOPPING BAGS ARE BAD

 

Published in Nimbin Good Times March 2006

 David McMinn

Planned obsolescence is one of those euphemisms used in economics to mask nefarious practises. Wikipedia describes it as the 'conscious design to produce a consumer product that will become obsolete and/or non functional in a defined time frame'. Inferior products are manufactured that could have been made to last a lot longer for a little extra cost. Companies design their products to fail quickly, which generates more sales and boosts their profits. Consumers continuously pay out for products that they do not need, while scarce resources are depleted and the environment is afflicted with rising mountains of waste. Big business regards planned obsolescence as good marketing, but big business is not renowned for its ethical practises or environmental concern. I dread the one year warranty, with the foreboding that my shiny, new consumer item will break down in one year and one day.   

My Personal Experiences

The door would not close properly on our 22 year old fridge, so we got in a repair man who fixed it with some cheap washers. He commented on the poor design of modern fridges - the door on one well known, expensive brand would fail after only a few years and need to be replaced. He advised to us to keep our old fridge for as long as possible and to avoid 'the new crap'.

My friend's gas stove broke down and had to be replaced after only 12 years usage, which is considered to be the standard lifespan of a modern stove. Our older and better made electric stove is still going well after 30 years.  

My computer is almost antique but  it does everything I want it too - email, internet, word processing and CD buring. My only complaint is that it is a little slow, but I can live with that. Every now and then I think of getting something new, but the longer I wait the cheaper and faster the new machines will be. E-waste generates huge quantities of heavy metals and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and is becoming a major environmental issue worldwide.

Have you noticed that farm and garden tools are usually painted green or are a dull brown or black? They are much more likely to be lost in the garden or around the farm, forcing you to buy new equipment more regularly. We took to painting our tools a bright pink so they can be easily seen.

My Braun electric toothbrush is designed so that you cannot replace the battery - trying to do so will destroy the appliance. Once the battery will no longer recharge, you have to get a new toothbrush. A far better option would be to replace the old battery and extend the life of the brush.

We used to buy buckets made from flexible plastic, that would last for a good year. Around 1988, the manufacturers changed to using brittle plastic. Now the buckets shatter very quickly and need to be replaced every few months. We looked at getting stainless steel buckets but they were prohibitively expensive. However, in the long run they may prove to be cheaper, rather than paying out all the time for new plastic buckets.

Numerous additional cases of my sufferings with planned obsolescence could have been presented. I am sure you could come up with many of your own examples. All quite depressing.

Government Response

Planned obsolescence has been around since the 1920's and became widespread by the 1950's. Even so, governments worldwide have done little to solve the crisis. To my knowledge, no government has banned this practise or legislated to reduce the rapid turnover in consumer products. Planned obsolescence is one of the most consistent features of modern capitalism. However, unless there are profound changes in our economic structures, the environmental future of our planet is very bleak. 

The NSW Government is clamping down on the use of plastic shopping bags. Yet the massive waste arising from planned obsolescence is just ignored. It is like something out of the TV sitcom Yes Minister. Get the people feeling as though they are actually doing something for the environment by cutting down on using shopping bags. Meanwhile much bigger issues are avoided, because they are more difficult and may offend business leaders. Sir Humphrey Appleby would have been so very pleased. He was a good public servant and believed activity was more important than actually doing something. 

At the very least, governments should legally require that every item be marked with its design life and warranties be extended for several years instead of the current one or two. That should be the minimum. Ideally every product should be made to last as long as practicable. Many people do not mind using old products provided they continue to function well. One friend's parents used the same toaster for 50 years - it was given to them as a wedding present. Some gay friends had a 1930's cylindrical fridge, which they proudly featured in their kitchen. A farmer living next door to us at Blue Knob is still using a 1950's Ferguson tractor. 

The current concern over plastic shopping bags is misplaced. Yes they are waste generators, but our whole economic system needs to be reformed to reduce waste dramatically. Planned obsolescence is an environmental obscenity and a consumer rip-off. Even so, it is the basis of capitalist business profitability - to maintain continuous expansion in sales of things that people do not really need. The issue is never discussed in the mass media, probably because the companies selling the dud products also pay for the advertising. Absurdly, we the Australian consumers are paying out huge subsidies to the profitability of manufacturers in China. Meanwhile, honest John Howard our beloved leader complains about the rising levels of imports and Australian's deteriorating balance of payments problem.

Ultimately it is the government's responsibility to enforce guidelines on the longevity of consumer products. With the arch conservative Howard government in power, there will be no change and meanwhile the problem will just continue to fester. The Howard government claims to be concerned about economic efficiency and Australia's balance of payments, but it fails miserably on planned obsolescence. 

NB: Doing a google search, I discovered that there were three spellings of planned obsolescence. The other two were planned obsolesce and planned obsolensce. Americans are such bad spellers. The British use the term built in obsolescence.