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The Throwaway Economy

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Some products have a limited life built into them while others become out of date by new and improved models. Either way consumers have to dip into their wallets to buy products a second, third, or more times.

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The Phoebus Cartel

There’s a light bulb in a fire station in Livermore, California that has been illuminating the darkness for 118 years. The long-lived bulb has a webcam trained on it, three of which have already expired.

The so-called Centennial Light is seen as evidence that businesses “Don’t make products the way they used to.” That light bulb was made before the manufacturers of such devices figured out how to make their products die in a few months.

In 1924, several light bulb manufacturers, such as Philips, General Electric, and Osram, got together in Switzerland to form what was called the Phoebus Cartel. The companies were concerned that their light bulbs were lasting too long, about 2,500 hours at the time, and this was depressing sales. So, they agreed to engineer their products to burn out after 1,000 hours. The light bulb industry claimed its light bulbs were brighter and more efficient.

Professor Markus Krajewski of the University of Basel has studied the Phoebus Cartel. He says the agreement was all about naked greed: “It was the explicit aim of the cartel to reduce the life span of the lamps in order to increase sales. Economics, not physics.”

The group even gave itself a name that embodied a lie; translated from French the name was Phoebus, Inc. Industrial Company for the Development of Lighting. One of its purposes was to shut down developments that might make light bulbs last longer.

The price-fixing ring lasted until 1939 when the outbreak of war disrupted its activities.

The Centennial Light and a webcam that is destined to die before the bulb.

The Centennial Light and a webcam that is destined to die before the bulb.

New Industrial Strategy

Economists and corporations noticed the effectiveness of the Phoebus Cartel and played copycat. The Great Depression gave impetus to the strategy of designing products to fail.

Egmont Arens was a man of many talents - publisher, artist, and industrial designer. In 1932, he collaborated with Roy Sheldon to publish a book entitled Consumer Engineering: A New Technique for Prosperity. They coined the phrase “creative waste” and enthused about how repetitive purchasing would dig America out of the economic glue in which it was stuck.

Historian Giles Slade covers the history of planned obsolescence in his 2007 book Made to Break. He tracked down a 1936 essay in Printer’s Ink that said it all in its title “Outmoded Durability: If Merchandise Does Not Wear Out Faster, Factories Will Be Idle, People Unemployed.”

New Models

As the Phoebus Cartel was hatching its scheme so was General Motors, although with a different twist. In the mid-1920s, the car company, under the leadership of Alfred P. Sloan, started introducing new models each year.

In his 1963 autobiography, My Years with General Motors, Sloan wrote “The changes in the new model should be so novel and attractive as to create demand … and a certain amount of dissatisfaction with past models as compared with the new one.”

Author Nigel Whitely writes that “In the 1930s, consumerist pioneer Sears Roebuck began introducing a new refrigerator model each year. Though they were all essentially the same machine, ‘visual trappings of progress desired by consumers’ kept sales up.” So, rearrange the shelving, stick a new handle on the outside and you’ve got a new must-have product.

The acquisition of the latest model gave families bragging rights about their social standing. That might be shallow but, for better or worse, it became an engine of economic growth.

Oh that's going to be fashionable for decades.

Oh that's going to be fashionable for decades.

The Smart Phone

The first iPhone was brought to market in 2007. A dozen years later the iPhone XS Max was introduced, the 21st model in the line. Some of the earlier versions no longer work on today’s networks; they are obsolete.

The iPhone 5, once the world’s most advanced smartphone, was introduced with great fanfare in 2012. In October 2018, Apple declared the device to be “vintage and obsolete.” At some point in the not too distant future the iPhone XS Max will become obsolete.

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Apple has come under a lot of criticism over how quickly its products need to be replaced. In France, the company faces some severe penalties. As the BBC reports (January 2018) “Under French law it is a crime to intentionally shorten lifespan of a product with the aim of making customers replace it.

“In December, Apple admitted that older iPhone models were deliberately slowed down through software updates.”

Of course, other smartphone manufacturers follow the same practice as Apple; are they all unethically forcing their customers to buy products they don’t need? It doesn’t seem so; because each time a new, improved model is introduced there are reports of people lining up overnight to get their hands on the latest gadget.

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Solutions to Obsolescence

Way back in 1982 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development issued a report urging governments to legislate against planned obsolescence. France is the only country so far to take action on the topic.

Consumer groups are active on the topic and urge people to:

  • Avoid trendy goods;
  • Join workshops to learn how to repair products;
  • Join a community tool pool;
  • Avoid buying cheap;
  • Buy second hand;
  • Use free or open-source software; and,
  • Go without.

Bonus Factoids

Bernard London was a real estate broker. In 1932, he wrote a paper entitled “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence.” In it, he called on government to print expiry dates on products so that “Furniture and clothing and other commodities should have a span of life, just as humans have. They should be retired, and replaced by fresh merchandise. It should be the duty of the state as the regulator of business to see that the system functions smoothly.” This is the first recorded use of the phrase “planned obsolescence.”

Computer printers are products that are widely rigged by manufacturers to require replacement long before they are useless. Some ink cartridges are also equipped with software that disables them after a period of time. However, there are videos on the Internet that show consumers how to overcome these planned obsolescence tricks.

Sources

  • “Planned Obsolescence.” Will Kenton, Investopedia, July 19, 2018.
  • “The L.E.D. Quandary: Why There’s No Such Thing as “Built to Last.’ ” J.B. MacKinnon, The New Yorker, July 14, 2016.
  • “Toward a Throw-Away Culture. Consumerism, ‘Style Obsolescence’ and Cultural Theory in the 1950s and 1960s.” Nigel Whiteley, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2.
  • “GM Invented Planned Obsolescence During the Great Depression, and We’ve Been Buying it Ever Since.” Stephanie Buck, Timeline.com, March 2, 2017.
  • “Planned Obsolescence: This Is How they Turn Us into Non-Stop Consumers.” History Disclosure, April 13, 2016.
  • “Apple Investigated by France for ‘Planned Obsolescence.’ ” BBC News, January 8, 2018.
  • “The Birth of Planned Obsolescence.” Livia Gershon, JSTOR Daily, April 10, 2017.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on February 24, 2019:

I commented a few years ago to a salesperson in an electrical store how much cheaper washing machines were compared to a few years ago. They said that was because the washing machines were no longer built to last.

At first I wondered if your title referred to the tendency some people have to buy cheap clothing for holidays, which they then dispose of while abroad.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 24, 2019:

Hi L.M. Yesterday I saw news that someone is launching a new smart phone at the bargain basement price of $1,950. I have no idea how people can afford these things; they are clearly not writers. But then, this comes from someone who doesn’t have a mobile phone of any persuasion. I just hate it when I see people in public places glued to their bloody devices instead of interacting with flesh and blood companions.

L.M. Hosler on February 24, 2019:

Good article. I have to wonder how people can even afford new I Phones or even other smart phones. The prices have gone so high. They do sell refurbished phones, tablets and computers, which is the way I would purchase these items.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on February 22, 2019:

Hello, Rupert, I was worried about new products for some time that claim a better deal. Weeks ago, I bought two electric bulbs. In less than a month, both are expired and I resort to older ones in the market. These are working for over a month now. Government is the problem due to politicing the polity. It has turn it face away as the regulatory agency. Nowadays, all sort of products can go into the market, and the consumers were the loser at the end. Thank you for sharing, and hae a nice weekend.