By Tony Ryan.
One day when I was in high school, a friend told me, in an urgent, conspiratorial tone, that his parents’ washing machine had broken down the day after the warranty expired, suggesting it had been programmed to do so by the manufacturers.
The makers of that washing machine almost certainly didn’t design it to conk out as soon as they were no longer liable for repairs or replacement. But I discovered years later that there’s a name for the practice of creating products that are designed to quickly fall apart or be superseded by a superior version: planned obsolescence. “That’s a thing,” as we say now. (As we also say, you know something exists when it’s been satirised, and planned obsolescence had the piss taken out of it artfully by The Onion.)
To keep you buying, manufacturers, particularly producers of electronics, often design smartphones, tablets, laptops and the like with the next, better version of their gadgets in mind. But these “better” versions are often not really better at all, as witnessed by countless technology reviews. Companies also build disposability into the physical gadgets themselves, publish software upgrades that don’t work on old handsets, and make their devices next to impossible to open for repairs, all of which are strategies aimed at getting you to shell out for new stuff.
Consumers are relied on to keep our economy going, and retailers and manufacturers are keen to meet their every whim with a saleable product. Problem is, this economic model comes from a time when the resources used to make these products were assumed to be infinite (when they were thought about at all). We now know that the ecosystems on which we depend can’t cope with the amount of garbage and pollution necessitated by the constant production and disposal of products. As George Monbiot recently put it, “Consumer demand and economic growth are the motors of environmental destruction”.
However! We’ve started to wise up to the situation, and consumers are turning to products that aren’t headed so quickly to the tip, easing the load on our environment and on our hip pockets. Governments are beginning to catch on – in France, planned obsolescence is a crime punishable by jail sentences – and there are a number of things you can keep in mind to help number its days.
Can you fix it?
There’s a growing movement devoted to fixing, rather than ditching, our broken possessions. Australia’s first repair cafe, in Marrickville, opened in 2014, and others followed. (There are now repair cafes in Sydney, Melbourne, Albury-Wodonga and Mullumbimby). Ifixit.com is the Wikipedia of the self-repair community, with nearly 20,000 free repair manuals for over 5,000 devices. And anyone can contribute to it, hence the Wikpedia comparison. They’ve even produced this fixer’s manifesto:
Buy built to last
Some of the lightbulbs manufactured around the time Thomas Edison invented them are still in use! Light bulbs are notorious in the literature on planned obsolescence as the first and perhaps the most well-known instance of the practice. From the 1920s to the 1940s, lightbulb manufacturers actually made their products worse, reducing their lifspans from an average of 2,500 hours to 1,000 hours in a bid to drive sales, which is now known as the lightbulb conspiracy. If you haven’t already, install LED lights – they last a lot longer and consume far less energy.
Today, many producers are more conscious of the community and the environment than the lighbulb barons of yore. For example, Buy Me Once is an online store that sells products that are made to last (and they have a wonderful tagline: “Because throwaway stuff is rubbish”).
Also, look for lifetime warranties and products with replaceable parts.
Wear old, unfashionable clothes in the hope they’ll become fashionable again someday
This one’s kind of a joke, but seriously, that’s how fast-fashion chains like Topshop and Zara work. They belt out new styles so quickly for a reason, earning them the description “planned obsolescence in action”. When it comes to fashion, you could do what I do: wear flares until the cycle of fashion inevitably swings around and they’re in vogue once again. It’ll happen.
Or you could make your clothes last.
But, do you actually need it at all?
But before any of the above comes into play, that’s the question: can I go without this? Buy Nothing Day, which was initiated by Adbusters magazine, has become an emblem of anti-consumerism, and has sparked Buy Nothing Christmas, Buy Nothing New Month and the Buy Nothing Project. Despite the “Buy Nothing” motif here, anti-consumerism is a broad church, and most of its adherents acknowledge that buying nothing at all in the long term is hardly feasible (though some people give it a shot for a good length of time). It does, however, encourage a thoughtful approach to consumption that considers the true costs of buying.