Westward Independent

The history of planned obsolescence – From innovation to consumerism

by Westward Independent
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I was recently in the market for a used vehicle and found the older most vehicles were the longer their lifespans. Why would a 1950 Chevy last hundreds of thousands of km longer than a 1999 Chevy? Shouldn’t we have more innovation and more efficient technology? Then I read into the history of planned obsolescence. We see this all the time when we go to a store to say, replace the carafe for a coffee maker, only to find buying a new maker can be cheaper than the replacement part.


I remember years ago reading about a place in England (as I remember), where you could take your broken toasters or ripped clothing, and rent tools and sewing machines to fix what was broken. They even had classes on repairing small appliances. Wouldn’t that be a cool investment from our ‘circular economy’ fund?

 
So what is planned obsolescence? Planned obsolescence, a strategic practice of designing products with limited lifespans to encourage frequent replacement, has a history intertwined with innovation, consumerism, and economic shifts. While its origins can be traced back to the early 20th century, the concept gained prominence in the post-World War II era and continues to shape consumer culture today.


The roots of planned obsolescence can be found in the work of Bernard London, an American real estate broker, who proposed in 1932 the idea of legally mandating an “obsolescence certificate” for products. London believed that such certificates would regulate the economy by ensuring that products would become obsolete after a predetermined time, thereby creating a continuous demand for new goods and stimulating economic growth.


However, it was during the 1950s that planned obsolescence became a deliberate strategy for businesses. The rise of mass production and the shift from wartime to peacetime economies prompted manufacturers to seek new ways to stimulate demand. Companies like General Motors embraced this philosophy, regularly introducing new car models with subtle design changes and updates, encouraging consumers to trade in their old vehicles for the latest models.


The advent of technology further fueled the spread of planned obsolescence. Electronics, in particular, became notorious for rapid advancements and shortened product life cycles. The introduction of new features and improved specifications rendered previous models obsolete, enticing consumers to upgrade frequently.


Critics argue that while planned obsolescence may boost short-term profits, it contributes to environmental issues and wasteful consumption. As products are discarded sooner, electronic waste accumulates, and valuable resources are depleted more rapidly. In response, some governments have implemented regulations to promote product durability and repairability, nudging manufacturers to consider the environmental impact of their designs.


In recent years, a counter-movement has emerged, advocating for “sustainable consumption” and emphasizing the value of longer-lasting, repairable products. Consumers are increasingly seeking out brands that prioritize durability over constant replacement, but is that enough? Should we not place regulations on manufacturers in the name of the environment? And wouldn’t these regulations go further for the environment than current policies around climate change?

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