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Planned Obsolescence

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Written by   201
5 months ago

Inside the Livermore fire station no: 6 in US is a light bulb that is the longest continuously working bulb in history, it is working since 1901. This bulb does not have an on off switch but has been given a power back up in case of light out. The original light bulbs were meant to last indefinitely, at least a person’s lifetime. But that would not make a good business sense as after sometime no one will buy bulbs anymore.

In the 1920’s the average life of a bulb was about 2500 hours but after that the increase in life of bulbs stopped. Then in 1924 In Geneva, the major manufacturers of light bulbs had a meeting which is now called the Phoebus Cartel. The participants included Philips, General Electric, Tokyo Electric, OSRAM, AEI and other smaller players from all around the world. In this meeting it was decided to help each other to control the supply of light bulbs. These included standardization of product across companies and also reduce the life of a light bulb to 1000 hours that is a reduction of more than 50 percent. For example in 1923 OSRAM sold 63 million light bulbs but in 1924 it sold only 23 million light bulbs, so sales were declining.  To enforce it each company had to send samples of light bulb which were tested and if any company had bulbs having life significantly more then that company was fined.

The Livermore light bulb.

The effect of this meeting was that the average life of a bulb decreased to 1200 hours by 1934 and the sales increased. Also as the cost of components reduced but the cost of bulb was kept almost unchanged thereby reaping more profit margins. So the longest lasting bulb is working till now because it was made before the Cartel. Though this cartel was dismantled by the Second World War but the idea was used in other products and is a standard practice of many companies. It came to be called as planned obsolescence.

In 2003 Apple I pod batteries were non-replaceable and lasted about 18 months. This led to a law suit which was ultimately settled out of the court. Then in 2017 after a software update the older Apple I phones were working slower than the newer ones. Apple said they have done this to increase the life of the battery thereby increase the longevity of the phone- but the only issue here was that the batteries were again non-replaceable.  This also led to law suits worth millions of dollars but that amount is insignificant compared to the sales they generate by limiting the life of the product.

Now even other smart phones have irreplaceable batteries. Even software updates can affect your printer and older printers may not function at all forcing you to buy a new one. Prevention of repair and controlling battery life in mobiles has now become a standard practice of this industry. Instead of running around to find a way around it is easier just to buy a new one. Even ink cartridges of some printers come with smart chips which won’t allow the cartridge to print if the ink is low thereby preventing you to use the whole amount of ink you purchased. With newer models Apple changes the edges from rounded one to rectangular one and vice versa.

Another popular example of planned obsolescence is the printing of updated edition of books at regular intervals, mostly yearly. This practice is rampant in text books. Though each new edition may have very minor changes in the content but it is presented as a major update from the previous edition.

Fashion industry also works in this principle. The fashion is changed quickly so that people (mostly female fashion) trying to keep themselves updated with the latest fashion trends tend to dump the old clothes in favor of newer ones. This change in fashion is followed by low cost clothing which won’t last long and are cheaper than the big brands so that people buy them again and again.

This reminds me of the movie ‘The man in the white suit’ made in 1951. This movie shows a scientist who creates a perfect fiber for clothes which would not stain or wear out or break or lose color. At first everyone is excited but later everyone is worried that it will make companies bankrupt and the workers are worried that they will be out of work after some time (just like light bulbs). The laundry woman says that as the fiber never gets dirty so who will give me clothes to wash. In the end it is shown that factory owners and factory workers come together to destroy his factory and him also.

In fact in the forties when the raw material for leggings/stockings were shifted from silk to nylon and they were so durable that the manufacturers had to ask the scientists to change the quality of the nylon so that it would wear and tear after sometime.

Now in some countries people have raised their voice about having the right to repair rather than replace. If Governments pass any legislation on these lines then will this planned obsolescence end. Well not necessarily because companies can still manipulate you. When Ford made and marketed the first car the model T, he expected that people who bought this car will not require another car as it was built so strong. In the 1920’s almost anyone who could afford a car had a car.

In 1925 Du Pont a chemical paint manufacturing company bought the controlling shares of General Motors and started experimenting with colors for the cars. The Ford T model was always black in color. So after experimenting a few years General Motors started selling cars in various colors with new color scheme every year. This was done not only to make the Ford car look outdated but also their own cars look outdated. These helped them in getting new customers as well as manipulate the old owners to replace the cars with new shiny colors. So what they did was to manipulate the peoples mind to make them buy new cars at regular interval.  A dynamic obsolescence instead of planned obsolescence. Even though the cars were in perfectly working condition but people still wanted a new car with new color.

So the products that are manufactured can be actually of a better quality but then the companies have there own interests of increasing sales by launching new products and people like us have our own interest of keeping ourselves updated with the latest products. The combination of these two have made planned obsolescence a part of our life.

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