They don't make 'em like they used to

Having a tidy out at work or home reveals many things: just how much stuff you’ve squirrelled away and just how much of it serves no useful purpose anymore. Or does it? Planned obsolescence is a thing, sadly: certain gadgets, cars and other tech have deliberately short lifespans, to make you shell out to replace them (which is why you stashed them away, out of sight, in the first place).

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Lightbulbs and various other technologies could easily last for decades, many believe, but it’s more profitable to introduce artificial lifespans so that companies get repeat sales. Is this true? Does planned obsolescence really exist?

The answer, it seems, is yes (to a point). If we look beyond the somewhat cynical idea that greedy companies are wantonly fleecing their customers, we need to accept some of the blame, too. Planned obsolescence is an inevitable consequence of sustainable businesses giving people goods they desire. It serves as a reflection of a ravenous, consumer culture which industries did create for their benefit, but one that consumers have been only too willing to embrace.

It’s not new, either. Competition between General Motors and Ford in the new 1920s auto market led the former to introduce the now-familiar model year changes in its vehicles. GM had pioneered a way to entice customers to splurge on the latest, greatest car, to satisfy themselves and impress those in their social circles, thereby creating a model for all industries..

So, although the term “planned obsolescence” wasn’t commonly used until the 1950s, the strategy had by then taken hold in consumerist societies. Back then, circular thinking was simply not on the agenda. But now…

Inexcusably, it’s very much alive and well in various forms, from subtle to unsubtle. From so-called contrived durability, where brittle parts give out (think small electrical home appliances), to having repairs cost more than replacement products (how about fridges and TVs), to aesthetic upgrades that frame older product versions as less stylish (think music systems, including headphones - getting smaller, year by year) – goods makers have no shortage of ruses to keep opening customers’ wallets.

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For a really up-to-date example, consider smartphones; we all know what’s going on, but we appear locked into the “I must have the latest model” argument. These handsets often get discarded after a mere couple years’ use. Screens or buttons break, batteries die, or their operating systems, apps, and so on can suddenly no longer be upgraded. Yet a solution is always near at hand: brand new handset models, pumped out every year or so, and touted as “the best ever”.

Fortunately, there are companies out there who are challenging this. One of my favourites, Fairphone, point out that “Many of us, (around 400 million by the third quarter of 2017) have a brand new phone that we’re getting to know, and an old phone, our constant companion for the last 1.7 years, who’s about to disappear into the messy drawer we all have”. It’s all too easy.

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Fairphone make the case: by recycling and reusing old phones, we can give them new lives in new homes, or recover valuable materials like gold, copper and palladium. We can reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing new phones, AND make the environment inside our messy drawers a bit cleaner!

What they’ve done is show the industry that there is another way. Fairphones are built to last. Yes, accidents happen, but that doesn’t have to mean the end of your phone. You can now make it last with easy repairs and replaceable modules, while regular software updates also keep your phone running smoothly. What’s more, there’s a growing market of ethical consumers, shown by present demand for Fairphones far outstripping supply.

Printers and printer cartridges, in particular, are another example which really frustrates me. In what is seemingly blatant planned obsolescence, microchips, light sensors or batteries can act to disable a cartridge well before all its ink is actually used up, forcing owners to go buy entirely new, not-at-all-cheap units. Someone please tell me why I shouldn’t be able to just go and get a bottle of cyan or black ink and simply squirt it into a reservoir? It’s crazy!

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Looking at this, planned obsolescence seems very wasteful. It's estimated that 65 million are sold in the UK every year and that 85% of them are simply discarded or sent to landfill, where their engineering grade polymers can take up to 1000 years to degrade. What’s more, they also contain carcinogens and other chemicals, which can disrupt health making it harmful to both humans and the environment. Put simply, The more printer cartridges that end up in landfill, the more likely it will contaminate our water supplies and soil. Beyond waste, all that extra manufacturing can degrade the environment, too.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of recycling schemes for used cartridges, and these are making it ever-easier for business and private customers to do the right thing. Personally, I still find it frustrating that I can’t simply take my empty ink or toner cartridges and have them refilled (with vegetable-based products) locally, before my own eyes. Thankfully, we are seeing refillable cartridges, capable of being refilled from bulk ink bottles numerous times, with claims that a refillable cartridge starter pack can save the consumer over £400 in ink!

So, reasons for optimism, then, but still a long way to go. I’d better get back to the tidying exercise, but exercising caution and thinking about deconstruction and up cycling options. Modular products are the way to go, if we’re serious about tackling our throwaway consumerism; but we need to make the right choices in order to drive the market. A business-minded approach to smarter recycling, reuse and repurposing has arguably made a big dent in the planned obsolescence approach, and will so in future.