The Challenges of Planned Obsolescence to the Circular Economy

As any product designer knows, the decisions you make throughout the development process have an incredible impact and far-reaching implications. Nothing could be a better example of this than planned obsolescence. However, it is still a widespread design practice, especially in technology, and it is in direct conflict with the concepts embodied in the circular economy.
Michael Sprauve
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August 12, 2022

As any product designer knows, the decisions you make throughout the development process have an incredible impact and far-reaching implications. Nothing could be a better example of this than planned obsolescence. However, it is still a widespread design practice, especially in technology, and it is in direct conflict with the concepts embodied in the circular economy. Although it is hard to imagine a world where we don't throw away 130 million metric tons of single-use plastics, the truth is "we don't make things like we used to," and that is taking an incredible environmental toll.

The Environmental Toll of Planned Obscelence

 Environmentally speaking, planned obsolescence is terrible. While it works well to feed the American ideals of buying new and buying many low-priced, cheaply made, usually disposed goods, it has devastating environmental repercussions. The days of cheap plastic waste were (and still are) bad enough but the growing pile of worldwide e-waste is a new frontier for concern and action.

Ewaste: Gadgets Designed to Fail

In the US alone, we throw151.8 million smartphones away each year, most of which end up in landfills. Sadly, cell phones only account for a small portion of e-waste. Altogether the world produces 40 million tons of e-waste each year and rising. Beyond the obvious problems of landfills teeming with toxic metals is the additional environmental cost of transportation and the inherently destructive mining processes required to make them. Furthermore, none of these ecological issues scratch the surface of the inequitably harsh human toll. While exploitation is nothing new, what is a relatively new concept, is designing things to fail. Which, as it turns out, is something very much rooted in the American tradition of consumerism established over the last 100 years. 

Keeping up with the Jones: The Beginning of American Consumerism

While the industrial revolution in the US certainly contributed to increased waste, the history of planned obsolescence began in earnest in the US during the heated auto wars between GM and Ford. The president of GM, Alfred P. Sloan, saw an opportunity to rival Ford's progressive improvements. He did so not by progressively improving his vehicles like his competitor Ford, but by convincing consumers, they felt "a certain dissatisfaction with past models compared with the new one."  “Dynamic obsolescence,” as he called it, was the predecessor to planned obsolescence. It didn't rely on actually designing things with intentionally low durability. Instead, it was more a celebration of conscious consumption, not unlike the prevailing theme of the "Keeping up with the Jones" cartoon, which was widely popular at the time. 

The Seeds of Obsolescence

The seeds now laid, the mind of the US consumers were aptly primed for the disposable wasteland yet to come. The actual term wouldn't come into popular parlance for almost another decade after Bernard London suggested perhaps "planned obsolescence" was the way to stimulate ourselves out of the Great Depression. He wasn't wrong. The best example of this is an actual light bulb cartel, The Phoebus Cartel, that proved the strategy of manufacturing intentionally low-durability goods was insanely profitable.  It took years, but with some creative engineering, the cartel was able to create a monopoly and a light bulb that only burned for 1000 hours--even fining members who manufactured longer burning bulbs.

Disposable Culture Wins the Day

The Eureka moment for disposable products, the very antithesis of circular ones, wouldn't come until the 1950s, when product companies and their respective advertising execs realized that throwing things away was the most efficient and sanitary way to do business.  They subsequently convinced the American population of this, an idea that has held firm to this day. 

The close of World War II coincided with the refinement of disposable plastics and an American eagerness to spend after years of austerity. The prevailing marketing theory at the time was-- the way to get the booming workforce to spend more was to encourage them to throw away more. And they were right. Through targeted advertising, disposable products became the new norm, and everything from dog bowls to diapers was produced and marketed to be used and thrown away. The 1955 Life Magazine article entitled "Throw Away Living: Disposable Items Cut Down on Household Chores" perfectly encapsulates an idea that today seems short-sighted at best, unscrupulous at worst. 

Life Magazine Article on Throwaway Living

The Linear and Circular Legacies

Americans were taught how to create piles of waste that, 70 years later, we are still dealing with and adding to.  It is a mindset problem as much as anything else; a linear behavior that can and must be untaught. If linear behavior is the sickness, circular thinking is indeed the cure. Just like consumers were once convinced that throwaway living was the ideal, educating them that it is not, is also achievable.  An understanding of how to keep products in circulation for as long as possible paired with the tools and parts to repair, recycle or reuse is a critical first step at the consumer level. But a business case must also be made for product companies, who make the things we throw away and whose central focus is understandably profit. So, can circular design be profitable? Absolutely and in our next article, we'll "show you the money."

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