Here’s why planned obsolescence is bad for the environment

Ever noticed how products today don’t seem to last as long as they used to? Does your cellphone’s battery seem to give up the ghost after only a few years? Or is your computer’s hardware just not cutting it anymore for the latest games?

You may be the victim of something called planned obsolescence. Unfamiliar with the term? Let us introduce you to the concept and offer some solutions.

What is planned obsolescence?

There are three main types of obsolescence.

  1. Absolute obsolescence is the term for when a product no longer functions for objective reasons, such as a mechanical failure or incompatibility of software.
  2. Relative obsolescence describes a situation where the product is still functional but is considered out of fashion or when a new product has better quality or functionality or when the price of repair or upgrade is too high compared with a new product.
  3. Planned or programmed obsolescence is a strategy employed by manufacturers to ensure the current version of a given product will go out of date within a set time period. Often, though not always, a proactive strategy, it is one method of helping to guarantee that consumers will seek replacements for their products in the future – therefore boosting consumption. 

Incandescent light bulbs are one of the most famous historical cases. While we were all fairly resigned to the need to change bulbs regularly, this doesn’t actually need to be the case. 

Source: Lya_Cattel/iStock

“Ever-lasting bulbs” were actually created early in the light bulb’s development process, but never saw the light of day – so to speak. This was planned by manufacturers to ensure the need for their products over time. 

In fact, there is a single bulb called the “Centennial Light” in the Livermore Fire Department that has been in constant use for over 120 years. While this kind of longevity may be beyond most products, even the highest of quality, it does go to show that it should be possible to make products that last a lot longer than we have come to accept.

Incandescent bulbs made today commonly burn for about 1,000 hours, or approximately half as long as the average bulb in the early 1920s. Of course, L.E.D.s can achieve life spans of 50,000 hours or more.

Planned obsolescence can be achieved through a variety of tactics, but the most common ones include introducing an incrementally superior model or intentionally designing a product to only function for a specific time window. Whichever method is used, or a mixture of the two, manufacturers gamble that consumers will favor the next generation of products over older ones. 

Planned obsolescence is not only costly for consumers but also wastes resources and energy. In 2021, the e-waste-focused WEEE Forum estimated around 62.8 million U.S. tons (57 million tonnes) of electronics would be thrown away that year – bigger than the Great Wall of China. More on the environmental cost later.

What are some examples of planned obsolescence?

A contemporary example of planned obsolescence is the replacement cycles for smartphones. While most phones should realistically last for around five years, most consumers typically replace theirs every 18 months or so. Some of the underlying components may even be specifically designed to shorten this time frame as much as possible.

Another driver is fashion or adding superfluous features. Adding slightly larger screens, an extra lens, or some other relatively minor feature is seen as justification for replacing your old phone. 

The software industry is another major example of this practice. 

Oftentimes, new software is designed to include new features or file formats that are incompatible with older versions of the same software. A similar yet related practice can be seen with computer hardware as well. 

Computing power, for example, generally follows Moore’s Law which states that the number of transistors on a circuit board will double every couple of years. It’s predicted to end once the gate length of the transistor gets very close to the size of the silicon atom. That means controlling the flow of electrons becomes increasingly difficult, and producing the chips becomes more expensive.

Until then, Moore’s Law means that computing power increases drastically every couple of years.

This means new computers have more computing power and speed than a computer that is just a couple of years old. Software is then developed that can take advantage of the greater computing power and cannot be easily used on older computers. This makes older computers obsolete for many modern tasks.

Depending on the kind of computer you own, it can be possible to swap out obsolete or damaged parts. Often this is not the case, as with laptop computers. 

For example, you may accidentally spill coffee over your laptop’s keyboard. This could render some of its keys, or all, completely unusable. While you can usually fairly easily source a replacement keyboard, it may not be a simple task to replace it yourself. Some laptops, for example, require you to effectively completely dismantle them to replace a single part. 

A similar phenomenon can be seen in other industries, like clothing manufacturing. 

Nylon stockings, as an example, tend to snag, snare, or run overtime. Flaws like these increase the demand for replacing older garments with new ones.

Clothing is also manufactured and marketed to convince consumers that it goes out of fashion after less than a year, encouraging the fashion conscious to buy new clothes which they may only wear a few times. According to a 2015 study by the British charity Barnado’s, on average, each piece of clothing is worn just seven times before being thrown away.

The car industry is also guilty of this practice. Newer models of cars, for example, will often incorporate slight decorative or functional improvements on previous models, stirring up consumer interest. 

There are also non-manufacturer strategy drivers for planned obsolescence. Government regulations, for example, can also cause a kind of “planned” obsolescence of products. 

One of the most recent examples is the move by a number of governments to ban the use of diesel engines (and eventually all combustion engines). While ostensibly done in the name of reaching net-zero and reducing climate change (as well as saving drivers money), this will inevitably lead to the need for consumers to replace their vehicles, for example, with EVs.

This is not only wasteful, in a sense, but could also lead to a serious waste problem further down the line.

Does Apple use planned obsolescence?

Apple’s products are some of the most infamous examples of planned obsolescence. Accusations of the practice have been leveled against the company for many years now, attracting media and consumer attention. 

Through a combination of anecdotes and official investigations into Apple’s practices, it has been noted that it has, in the past, appeared to have intentionally shortened Apple product replacement cycles beyond that which would be reasonably expected.

Apple phone charger cables, for example, have been notoriously fragile, resulting in the need to replace them more often than with many other brands.

planned obsolescence iphones
Source: Apple/YouTube

Harvard University professor Sendhil Mullainathan noticed in 2014 that searches for “iPhone slow” spike in the days after a new phone launches. This may be an affectation of running higher-demand software on older hardware rather than an intentional policy on Apple’s part.  

Apple recently settled a 2017 class-action lawsuit over the issue, agreeing to issue payouts to customers and state governments over what has been referred to as “batterygate.”

Apple has officially denied that it uses planned obsolescence.

Despite their reputation for this practice, and the above-mentioned settlement and lawsuit, it has not yet been definitively proven that companies like Apple participate in this practice as official policy. Other companies, including some of Apple’s competitors, also appear to partake in a similar practice. 

Ethics of such practices aside, some do argue that if this practice did exist there may actually be some benefits to it. 

In the past, some have argued that planned obsolescence was good for the economy overall. Others have argued that the strategy drives, to a certain extent, technological progress in industries like computing. We’ll let you be the judge of that, of course.

Is planned obsolescence bad for the environment?

Arguments aside around the technological development drive planned obsolescence can achieve, there is no doubt that unnecessarily expending resources and energy to constantly make new products must have some impact on the world around us. From the mining, extraction, and refining of raw materials to transport, manufacturing, and delivery of the end products, each step in the supply chain makes an impact on the environment. 

Electronics, in particular, can be pretty polluting, especially those products that make use of lithium batteries or require other rare earth metals in their construction. While the same is also true for other, supposedly greener products like solar panels or electric vehicles, these products, at least, are designed to last longer than a few years. 

They are also made in relatively smaller quantities and are intentionally designed to help reduce unsustainable reliance on things like fossil fuels. This is very much a calculated compromise. Planned obsolescence, on the other hand, only serves to effectively increase the consumption of energy and materials. 

It is also important to note that the supply chains for the production of these products also provide employment for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people. But, does this come at too much of a cost for the planet? 

One of the main issues with this kind of practice is what happens at the end of each product’s life. In most cases, they are simply disposed of. 

Electronics are especially problematic. Annually, millions of tons of electronic waste, e-waste for short, are generated each year. In the European Union alone, around 2.5 billion tons of e-waste are produced each year.

A lot of this e-waste cannot readily be reused and can be quite costly to recycle or reprocess to extract its constituent parts. Anyone who has tried to retrieve some of the more valuable elements, like gold, from old electronics, will know this all too well.

Where recycling electronics is attempted, the practice can also be incredibly polluting. To get the more valuable materials, most e-waste will be burned or acid-treated. Both of these practices are clearly not the best for the environment, even in the best-run facilities. 

For those parts that cannot be recycled, e-waste is usually sent to landfills, or otherwise disposed of. Since the parts contain relatively large amounts of toxic substances (and are not readily biodegradable), these build up very rapidly in the environment and can leach into water supplies. 

From a future production point of view, it is also a great waste of resources, as most of the more valuable constituent materials are, by their very nature, rare. Elements like neodymium, indium, cobalt, etc, are very common in devices like magnets, flat-screen TVs, and batteries. 

If practices like planned obsolescence continue apace, and nothing is done to deal with the end-of-life part of the cycle, then we will quickly face a very serious shortage of materials, while simultaneously irrevocably damaging large parts of our planet. 

What can be done to overcome planned obsolescence?

As it turns out, a great deal.

One way is through government regulation or international agreements. Love it or hate it, this might be an area where government intervention may be necessary and very useful. 

For example, the European Union recently established the so-called “Right to Repair.” This will eventually include a number of Europe-wide initiatives to improve the reparability of products, including requiring manufacturers to make it easier to repair electronics and measures making the broader economic context more favorable to repair.

This includes establishing requirements that consumers be given the ability to repair their older or defective equipment on demand without the need to pay exorbitant costs to do so. This will be done by releasing information and spare parts to “professional repairers”.  

One of the main drivers for the practice is consumer behavior. After all, while people continue to “put up” with short-lived products, or succumb to the whims of “fashion,” then nothing will really change. 

To this end, one of the most powerful potential controls would be consumers at large boycotting buying new products if they don’t need them. Consumers could also make a stand against proprietary accessories (like wireless earbuds or special chargers). Official versions can be financially costly, but also tend to inspire aftermarket alternatives that compound the problem of raw material consumption and e-waste. 

Another strategy is to reduce your replacement cycle for products. While this may not be possible for all products (especially food, etc), it is quite possible to keep your clothing and smart devices for a few years longer than you usually do. To help you in this area, always make your best attempt to repair or replace worn-out parts whenever possible. 

When a product has really reached the end of its life, always err on the side of recycling or donating the product to somewhere that can properly handle it. When you come to buying a new product, consider going for an older, recycled, or reconditioned product, or one made from recycled materials, rather than choosing a new one. 

What are some examples of sustainable technology?

However, it should also be noted that some organizations, and even manufacturers, are starting to take some action to tackle the problem. Let’s find out which ones. 

1. Fairphone is a modular phone 

planned obsolescence fairphone
Source: Fairphone/Wikimedia Commons

One of the most interesting initiatives to reduce the impact of technology on the environment is a product called the Fairphone. Modular by design, the Fairphone has been developed to make the most of fair work practices and maximize recycled materials and sustainability as much as reasonably practicable. 

The basic concept is to allow consumers to switch out obsolete or broken components with ease rather than require them to replace the entire phone. Most, if not all, parts of the phone can be replaced, like the battery, aux socket, and camera.

The phone’s gubbins is also specifically designed to be as easy to repair as possible. Each Fairphone has a five-year guarantee, but remember that you can replace parts on-demand throughout the phone’s life. 

2. Outerwall EcoATM pays you to properly dispose of your old e-waste

planned obsolescence ecoatm
Source: Michael Rivera/Wikimedia Commons

One of the biggest problems with planned obsolescence is e-waste. One company that has spotted a potential solution is the EcoATM. Developed by Outerwall, the EcoATM has been specifically designed to incentivize consumers to responsibly dispose of their old mobile phones. 

The machine analyzes your old device in situ and then makes you an offer that can be paid in cash, bank transfer, or vouchers. The machine accepts all phones in basically any condition, and you can also opt to plant a tree as well as get some cash. Two for the price of one. 

The company also offers security for your personal data and promises to ensure any information left on your old phone will remain completely private. That said, it is always a good idea to fully remove any personal data from old smart devices before you dispose of them. 

3. The Framework laptop might be the only one you ever need

planned obsolescence laptop
Source: Framework

Another company doing its part to help deal with the worst of planned obsolescence is Framework and its modular laptop. Designed from the ground up to be as easily repairable and upgradeable as possible, this laptop might be the only one you ever need. 

Most, if not all, of its components are easy to access and can be swapped out with ease. They are also helpfully labeled so you can readily identify them and orient yourself around the computer’s inner parts yourself – if you are confident enough. 

The company also provides a series of free repair guides to help out and has a wide range of spare parts available on their site. You can even readily customize the computer to your liking, too. 

Add your own parts, install whichever operating system you’d like, or choose from the company’s wide range of products. The choice is yours. 

4. Build your own computer

planned obsolescence build a pc
Source: BornaKia/Wikimedia Commons

Sticking on the topic of electronics, another way to deal with planned obsolescence is to build your own computer. Depending on your level of tech skill, you source and build your own computer from the ground up with relative ease. 

This is not only great fun and very rewarding, but also gives you the option of readily upgrading and replacing parts over time. For most PC users, this is like preaching to the converted, but it really is liberating and, ultimately, a great way to improve your computing power (and knowledge) over time without indirectly damaging the environment.

You can either do this yourself or use specialist companies who can guide your hand. 

5. Are you a victim of “false economy” thinking? 

planned obsolescence shoes
Source: frederic prochasson/iStock

Electronics aside, for most other products you use, you might want to evaluate if you are falling into the trap of making a “false economy”. While getting a great deal is very popular, sometimes (oftentimes in fact), it might be better to spend a little more for a higher-quality, longer-lasting product rather than a cheaper one.

There are too many examples to list here, but it is often cheaper overtime to buy something that lasts longer than constantly replacing lower-quality stuff every year or so. Of course, this requires that you can afford the more expensive item in the first place.

Shoes are one great example. It is often cheaper, in the long run, to pay more for a pair of shoes that will last for years than to replace the shoes every year or less. More expensive shoes tend to be easier to repair as well. 

You can even find shoes made from recycled materials, which are partially modular, to help extend their lifecycles. 

You can extend this thinking to many other products, including food and other consumables too. Buying fresh food and making your own meals will give you a much better return for your investment in terms of money and nourishment than buying ready meals or fast foods.

While it does feel nice to have the latest and greatest phone, “in season” piece of clothing, or another item, you should probably ask yourself if it might be better to make more use of your old stuff.

Who knows, you may even start a new trend.



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