In 2020, people around the world purchased some 24 billion pairs of shoes, 64 million cars and 1.4 billion smartphones, including 200 million from Apple. More than 80% of iPhones sold last year went to “upgraders”, not to first-time buyers. It’s all part of business as usual.
Since the 1920s, when light bulb makers teamed up to deliberately limit the lifespan of their products, companies have been locked into a business model rooted in the concept of planned obsolescence. In order to “grow”, at least according to economists’ definition, companies have to sell us more products every year.
Planned obsolescence is the reason we see software mysteriously slowing down, furniture designed with hollow feet and cheap staples, and clothes burnt because they can’t sell fast enough. As repair shops close, landfills expand. How did we get here? How to change course?
The components of planned obsolescence
Planned obsolescence is largely determined by the materials a manufacturer chooses to use and how they’re put together (think phones with screens glued in place). If the main source of income for a business is to sell more products each year, there is little incentive to design for durability, longevity and repair.
Linear growth models
The limited definition of growth in our current business model means that companies do not invest in alternative sources of revenue, such as repair, service and resale. “Negative externalities” like pollution are not factored into the bottom line, and shareholder profit trumps everything.
The economic model that demands uninterrupted growth is based on a foundation of wage inequalities and human rights violations. Without international labor standards, it is easier to make new, inexpensive items than to maintain old ones.
In addition to the basic design, a host of secondary features and logistical quagmires make it difficult to use an object, for example accessories that are not interchangeable, parts or manuals that are not readily available, as well. as warranties and service policies that prioritize replacement over repair.
Advertising reinforces the idea that we should run out and buy shiny new models. Cultural messages teach us to devalue our attachment to the things we already have.
As globalization increasingly separates end-users from the manufacture of products, our sense of value is distorted, creating both a physical and psychological distance between the manufacture and use of our products.
The (circular) way out of obsolescence
- Send signals to the market, demonstrate the demand for sustainability, and live in a way that matches your values.
- Have good things.
- Buying new things should be rare. Look for new products that are durable, repairable, sustainably sourced and produced ethically.
- Don’t have too many.
- Things are like food: too many good things cause problems. Reduce empty “food calories” by buying less and choosing wisely.
- Look for mostly salvaged items.
- Rebalance your diet by making second-hand products your first choice whenever possible.
- Take care of it.
- Make repair and maintenance part of your routine and budget by spending time and money taking care of what you already have.
- Pass it.
- When an item has reached the end of its useful life, or its use in your life, pass it on to someone who can use it.
- Businesses can meet the growing demand for sustainability by creating goods and services that empower people to change their ways. Circular business models are not new but are taking off in new ways. In clothing, resale has grown more than 21 times faster than traditional retail sales in recent years.
- Develop multiple revenue streams, not only through the sale of new products, but also through resale, repair, upgrade, lease and service models.
- Stay away from the “race to the bottom” on prices. Sell fewer items, but make money on the same item multiple times by offering resale and repair.
- Build stronger relationships with customers based on quality, transparency and service.
- Help create the incentives (positive and negative) that will accelerate and intensify positive change. Here are some models, from local to global:
- Pay-per-throw waste management services have been shown to reduce waste sent to landfill and help encourage people to ‘pass it on’.
- Extended producer responsibility laws ensure that manufacturers and retailers consider the full life cycle of a product.
- Right to redress legislation is on the agenda in at least 25 states; it would help protect farmers, small business owners and individuals who wish to be able to repair their own tools and equipment.
- International fair labor standards are the holy grail of healthier consumption patterns; our current system is based on low wages in manufacturing countries around the world. A truly circular and ethical model relies on people being paid fairly for their work.
This article appeared in the fall quarterly edition under the title “Built Not last.”