Planned obsolescence refers to manufacturing or marketing techniques generally designed to artificially shorten the life of a product, either by making it actually useless, or appear useless before it would naturally. There are several similar but subtly different types of planned obsolescence.
It should be noted that most of these types of obsolescence can and do occur naturally, without any intent to create the obsolescence. Obsolescence may be the result of true progress in developing industries, such as the computer industry in the 1980s and 1990s.
Types of Planned Obsolescence
- Obsolescence of function: This refers to when an item is produced to break down or otherwise become non-functional in an abnormally short period of time. It may also refer to cases where an item is rendered non-functional but where the item itself still works: e.g. the creation of a new cell phone network that is incompatible with earlier cell phones. Obsolescence of function is sometimes simply shoddy workmanship (though not all poor workmanship is an attempt at planned obsolescence).
- Obsolescence of style: This refers to the obsolescence of items such as clothing, fashion accessories, and home decorating products due to changes in style. For example, if the fashion trend is for high skirts, low skirts will be rendered stylistically obsolete. In some cases, style changes are so great that old styles would look out of place or ridiculous. The clothing industry actually prided itself in creating obsolescence of style, as it was beneficial for sales (in Vance Packard's book The Waste Makers, several quotes from fashion industry admen and executives are cited supporting the creation of obsolescence).
- Technical obsolescence: This refers to the obsolescence of an older item caused by the creation of a newer item performing the same function, e.g. a digital camera that takes higher quality photos. While the older item still performs the function in question, it is comparatively inferior to the newer item.
One of the most egregious examples of planned obsolescence is the rechargeable batteries commonly contained in small electronic devices such as MP3 players, PDAs, and some cell phones (such as the iPhone). The batteries are often soldered into the unit, making replacement almost impossible for the average user (some companies such as Apple do offer battery replacement for a considerable fee). Some of these batteries also contain circuits that regulate and limit the number of charging cycles the battery will take before it fails to charge, limiting the useful life of the battery, and consequently the unit itself. This strategy is even readily admitted by the product developers themselves; a product development firm states, "Cell phones have proprietary lithium batteries that can be charged and discharged for a limited number of times. After the battery stops retaining charge it has to be replaced. The cost of replacing the proprietary battery is often about the same as replacing the cell phone."
Another example of planned obsolescence is items that warn the user when it is time to replace them, such as the fading colored strips on razors or the low ink warnings for ink jet cartridges. Generally printers will display low ink warnings even when a considerable amount of ink remains, and many printers actually stop printing once the low ink warning has appeared, regardless of how much ink is actually left. Some cartridges still contain more than 40% of their ink when they display a low ink warning.
One kind of planned obsolescence has the same effect as technical obsolescence, but it is slightly different; sometimes a company will incrementally introduce features into a product even if it would not cost much more for all of the features to be in a product. For example, a new feature might be to add GPS to every new model, making the new one slightly better than the old one.
Often, batteries for cordless power tools will change such that batteries for working but older tools can no longer be acquired at reasonable prices. This forces the consumer to buy a new tool set when in reality only a new battery is required.
Planned obsolescence is commonly criticized by social critics as a wasteful attempt simply to sell more items. However, marketers, if they admit to using planned obsolescence, generally describe it as a means of making newer, better products affordable and available. For example, if a company designed its MP3 player to last 10 years, then a) it would cost more, and b), consumers would not update it with a better unit because they paid more for it.
Some product design strategies that are indistinguishable from planned obsolescence are actually meant to provide a more affordable product to the consumer. These strategies are known as "value engineering", the purpose of which is to create the most suitable product at the lowest possible cost. Value engineering may be considered a form of planned obsolescence, but it does necessarily carry the same negative connotation.
An example of value engineering would be building a computer to last only a few years, since by then it would be superseded by better technology anyway. If the old computer were built to last 20 years, it would presumably cost more, which would be wasteful since the computer would be technically obsolete in only about four years (of course, this is negative for anyone who would intend to keep their computer appreciably longer than four years).