Jul 312011

For at least a century many products have been purposefully designed to fail – so we can buy them again and again.

This rather bizarre business of artificially shortened life cycles to create artificial demands in a wide range of products is worldwide known as  “planned obsolescence/ built-in obsolescence”. Here is how Wikipedia defines it (March 2011):

Planned obsolescence or built-in obsolescence in industrial design is a policy of deliberately planning or designing a product with a limited useful life, so it will become obsolete or nonfunctional after a certain period.
Planned obsolescence has potential benefits for the manufacturer: to obtain continuing use of the product the consumer is under pressure to purchase again. He buys either from the same manufacturer (a replacement part or a newer model), or from a competitor who may also rely on planned obsolescence.

Today built-in obsolescence is used in many different products. There is, however, the potential backlash of consumers who learn that the manufacturer intentionally make the product obsolete faster. Such consumers might turn to an alternative producer (if any exists) that offers a more durable alternative. In other words, this nasty strategy is not available for small companies who would only lose customers.

Given today’s tremendous increase of international corporate power and severely reduced competition, planned obsolescence has become an attractive possibility for products than ever in human history.

Built-in obsolescence was already used in the 1920s and 1930s when global mass production became possible and rigorously optimized.

Here are some better known examples for planned obsolescence:

  1. Planned obsolescence (intentional obsolescence) is not just annoying and a waste of labour. It is pollution.

    Citarum River in Java, Indonesia. Indonesia receives much of the electronic and other toxic waste from developed countries like the USA. Click to enlarge.

    Thomas Edison’s first commercial light bulb in 1881 lasted 1500 hours. In 1924 manufactures proudly advertised light bulbs that lasted 2400 hours Osram, Philips, Tungsram and others decided in 1924  to limit the life time of its light bulbs to 1000 hours world-wide and issued fines for non compliance via the Phobus Cartel.
    Lifetimes up to 100 000 hours were patented but never reached the public. Remarkably the entire industry did not even bother to fake life-time improvements for about 100 years. The tungsten lamp was replaced by fluorescent and LED lights only a few years ago. One of the earliest light bulbs has been burning continuously since 1901 in a fire-station in Livermore, California. It has already outlived several web-cams designed to monitor its final death [1].

  2. US women in the early 20th century loved their practically indestructible tights. This changed however, when manufacturers decided to “quality” control them and make them last much shorter to become “disposable”  [1].
  3. Today both ink and laser printers have built-in obsolescence switches and mechanisms. Many of these can be reset after a little Googling or searching YouTube [1]. This applies for cartridges and toners and less frequently for the printer itself. Your printer may claim (via the display panel) that it needs fixing. This makes more sense for the manufacturer than cheating with the amount of ink. Disabling ink cartridge makes cheap, third-party, refilling of the cartridges impossible – unless, of course, we find a way to reset the chip or just purchase a resetting device (available online).
  4. The usually custom-made lithium-ion batteries like the ones in notebook computers or mobile phones can have chips inside that disable the battery after a certain number of cycles. Luckily these chips can also be reset.


The seasonal and yearly creation of fashions and fads from clothing, toys to cars has already become an accepted cycle of “buy and throw away” today. This kind of “consumerist” thinking was created first in the US by the manufacturers union who hired reckless marketing gurus like Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays also doubled the tobacco industries revenues by breaking down traditional barriers that kept women from smoking and much more.

Built-in obsolescence, together with the media calling for – and relying on – artificially high consumption  is destroying  both our economy and finite resources and poisons our planet with mountains of unnecessary waste.

The 20 min animated documentary, featured on the New York Times front page, “The Story of Stuff” [3] pictures the high consumption life style in the US which is partly based on planned obsolescence. According to the documentary’s sources, 90% of the stuff Americans buy are thrown away after 6 months. The American 5% of the global population consume 30% of the worlds resources and produce 30% of the world’s waste much of which is exported to third world countries officially labeled as second-hand electronics.

Strange things humans do.

Here are a few ideas what we could do:

  • Support the introduction of a law for gradual elimination of commercial and political advertising – write to your political representatives or at least on your own blog.

This would fix a lot but may take a while as most countries are governed by politicians with strong ties to businesses. Meanwhile we could:

  • Reduce your families exposure to ads. No TV is best and practically a “must” in the US. Protect yourself from corporate propaganda  by switching from FOX news to alternative media (radio, TV, papers) and non commercial sources on the Internet. Use ad-blocking software and limit cookies when browsing the Internet.
  • Buy from smaller companies even if it costs a little more (make sure it is not owned by a larger one!) – see the price difference as a donation towards your children’s future.
  • Hold on to older, often better quality products as long as they function and resist marketing that makes you buy that fancy remote-controlled talking fridge.
  • Spread the word about the extent and disastrous consequences of planned obsolescence.



[1] “Pyramids of Waste” also known as “The light bulb conspiracy” watch e.g. here

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planned_obsolescence

[3] “The story of Stuff“- A 2007 animated documentary about the life-cycle of material goods.


Keywords: built-in obsolescence, light bulbs, printers

  One Response to “The bizarre business of intentional product failure: planned obsolescence”

  1. Hi Jason,
    I do like your article – well done! The world needs more people who can look through the lies and deception around us.

    I think teaching children more about planned obsolescence and the lies in advertising we may one day stop polluting the world.

    I just came across this
    free online course about critical thinking

    which would be something teachers could use to prepare students for these kind of issues.

    I hope you don’t mind this link – but I really think it is relevant to your article and to change the world!!

    Keep writing your critical articles – I really like them!

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