Designed for Waste: Planned Obsolescence
BY LINDSEY NGO
(Credit to Ecospare)
Planned obsolescence is a marketing strategy where products are intentionally designed to break down or become unusable after a set amount of time, ensuring consumers continually return. This practice has permeated every industry, including technology, appliances, fashion, and automobiles. Paired alongside annual updates to one-year-old products, companies create a perpetual cycle of purchase and replace. A model designed around waste for profit ultimately leads to environmental degradation and pollution, further exacerbating the climate crisis.
Manifesting in various ways, product obsolescence can be categorized as absolute or relative. As explained by Christopher McFadden, absolute obsolescence can be seen when systems are not able to update to the latest version, or when a part mechanically fails. Especially regarding technology, older laptops are unable to handle new updates, eventually failing to run at all. Relative obsolescence refers to it becoming more expensive to repair a broken product than to simply replace it with a modern version, or when there is a more appealing version released on the market, as often seen with Apple or Microsoft products. Both versions are understood to be planned obsolescence because it is designed by the company to either fail within a certain period or to be upstaged by the newest model.
(Credit to Dignited)
As consumers, we are marketed to all the time, constantly advertised the latest models, contemporary appliances, and more. It is in the company's best interest to continually produce additional products, convincing their audience to buy and buy, even if the differences between the new and old models are minimal. Apple is especially known for pushing a new prototype every year. The iPhone 12 came out on October 23, 2020, the 13 on September 24, 2021, and the most recent iPhone 14 on September 16, 2022. The differences between the iPhone 13 and 14 are superfluous and identical in terms of resolution, cameras, and storage. The only change is a 5-core GPU instead of a 4-core, and additional features such as car crash detection, upping the price by a hundred dollars.
The simple existence of the iPhone 14 feeds into the desire to have the next best thing, regardless of current functionality. Even if people are not tempted to buy, the current model signals the end of many older phones, unable to handle the faster operating systems. Brooke Johnson succinctly states, "The iPhone’s model is designed and encouraged to upgrade about every two years due to many factors such as lagging, diminishing capabilities and running out of storage." Ultimately, whether through absolute or relative obsolescence, consumers will find themselves with a new, but not distinctive, phone in hand.
Apple's, and many other companies, marketing strategy encourages consumers to continually upgrade, providing them with more and more to buy. That, in turn, means there is waste piling up and resources being used ineffectively. In 2022, "5.3 billion mobile phones will be thrown away," according to the WEEE Forum, centering around electronic and equipment waste. E-waste poses a dangerous risk to the environment, containing both toxic and precious materials, such as mercury and cobalt. Only 17% of the world's e-waste is properly recycled, meaning both usable and defunct machines are lying dormant with no greater purpose. Or even worse, they are improperly disposed of, leading to water contamination and air pollution, all of which spread much farther than the landfills.
Furthermore, e-waste produces exorbitant amounts of greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide. A study from Irvine found that “Greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere from electronic devices and their associated electronic waste increased by 53 percent between 2014 and 2020, including 580 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2020 alone.” These emissions stem from the production, transportation, and eventual use of the technology–essentially its entire life-cycle. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, known for warming the planet by trapping heat in its atmosphere. Unfortunately, planned obsolescence increases the amount of emissions, as new products continually replace older ones prematurely. Companies employing technology with a longer lifespan would drastically decrease e-waste, perhaps up to 28 million metric tons less from 2015 to 2020, and subsequently, their carbon dioxide emissions and other pollution. Planned obsolescence actively hurts the climate, adding a burden that becomes impossible to bear.
Relentlessly, more technology is being continually produced as companies dig deeper for more resources, rather than looking to recycle old parts. As stated by Professor Tom Welton, "Our tech consumption habits remain highly unsustainable and have left us at risk of exhausting the raw elements we need." Materials such as arsenic, silver, and indium are commonly used in technology, yet are quickly being depleted from the earth. There has been a suggestion to shift from mining to e-waste mining. Realistically, most e-waste is not waste, but rather parts that have the potential to be repurposed or repaired. Alongside that vein, companies can regain material from old products, a process that is easier on the environment.
(Credit to the Royal Society of Chemistry)
However, as appealing as recycling and e-waste mining are, the reality is that these processes still negatively impact the environment. They are solutions to the issue of overproduction, exacerbated by planned obsolescence. So, what should be done instead?
The first step would be to recognize planned obsolescence marketing strategies and to turn away from relative obsolescence. Already, Apple's iPhone 14 sales are suffering, leading them to reconsider their prices. The decrease in expected sales demonstrates audiences rejecting the idea of relative obsolescence, preferring to hold onto older models. Perhaps as sales continue to diminish, companies will understand that consumers are no longer looking to constantly buy and replace. Instead, looking toward used or recycled items can help challenge the constant cycle of waste.
Secondly, consider donating stored e-waste to nearby recycling centers. Earth911 can help optimize the search for all sorts of materials, including but not limited to electronics, batteries, and automotives. These tips apply to all industries, as the fashion and appliances industry follow these patterns too. Thirdly, keeping these issues in mind politically is important as well. Stricter product regulations can encourage companies to cut back on overproducing, which can be worked towards through representatives. Doing so will create longer lasting change, one that extends past the personal sphere. Ultimately, questioning the companies’ excess will reveal the dangers of planned obsolescence on the climate, driving better and more-informed choices.