‘They don’t make them like they used to.’
How the reduction in product quality is increasing consumer frustration.
The technological advancements over the last few decades have been remarkable. Off the chart. Unfortunately, the decline in product quality is equally staggering. Especially in recent years.
More companies than ever before are being accused of ‘planned obsolescence’. The act of deliberately slowing down devices or reducing lifespan to induce people to buy more, or upgrade to the latest models.
In this paper, we look at the history of planned obsolescence, those behind it, what’s being done to prevent it, and how it’s affecting more than just consumers.
The rich history of planned obsolescence.
The term ‘planned obsolescence’ dates to the 1950s. It’s still not commonly used today, although it’s becoming more mainstream. And even if people aren’t aware of it, or know exactly what it means, there’s unlikely to be an adult alive that hasn’t been the victim of it. Even in underdeveloped nations. You only need to have bought a light bulb for example.
When Thomas Edison invented the commercially viable lightbulb circa 1880, it was built to last as long as possible. There’s still a Centennial Light, as they were known, working today that’s nearly 120 years old. This all changed in the 1920s.
The demand for lightbulbs increased considerably. And manufacturers spotted an opportunity. Several big players, including Osram and General Electric (GE), colluded to reduce their bulbs’ lifetime to increase their profit margins. The group was known as The Phoebus cartel. What they did only came to light, pardon the pun, in the 1940s when the US government investigated GE.
This Phoebus cartel weren’t alone. Planned obsolescence has been evident in other industries throughout history. General Motors (GM) introduced model year changes in its vehicles – with money on their mind. It encouraged customers to splash out on the latest car to impress neighbours, friends and family.
Planned obsolescence hasn’t diminished over time. It’s increased – considerably. It might be subtle in some cases, but it slaps you in the face on a daily basis when it comes to new electronic goods and devices.
The number crunchers crushing product quality.
So why does product quality and lifespan nosedive? It’s no secret – profit. The company accountants are cutting corners at every opportunity. And not just with the build quality.
The calculator bashers are forcing upgrades too. Creating unnecessary new models that have little (if any) innovations or new features. Look at the difference between the iPhone 7 and iPhone 11. There’s hardly a revolutionary change considering the four-year gap.
Another cost-cutting exercise is live testing on software updates, or over the air (OTA) updates. Rather than beta testing an update first, it’s simply released, then they wait for user and device feedback to highlight the bugs. These are then fixed for future releases. The sheer volume of Apple iOS updates and how some things don’t work as expected is clear evidence of this. Ironically when writing this post I went to take a picture of my iPhone software version and guess what? – another update…
Companies are also driving up new sales by making it virtually impossible to repair broken tech. Glued plastic casings. Non-standard screws. Irreplaceable batteries.
How you’re ‘pushed’ and ‘pulled’ into upgrading.
Now Apple aren’t the only tech firm guilty of this, but they are a prime example. Especially as their brand was built on ‘innovation’. For years their advertising campaigns have promoted this and the necessity to ‘not miss out’ on their shiny, all-singing, all-dancing new model. Essentially helping you to self-justify the need to upgrade. On average, people change their smartphones every two to three years. This is the ‘pull’ part of the strategy.
The ‘push’ part comes from the built-in obsolescence of its current models. The constant updates that slow things down. Reduce battery life. And make them impractical to use.
So you’re forced to upgrade.
In Italy, both Samsung and Apple were fined millions of Euros for deliberately slowing down their devices. The country’s antitrust watchdog said in a statement: “Apple and Samsung implemented dishonest commercial practices” and that operating system updates “caused serious malfunctions and significantly reduced performance, thus accelerating phones’ substitution.”
Italy isn’t the only country Apple have been in trouble with. The US, Israel and France have investigated them too. In France, ‘planned obsolescence’ is a crime, with penalties including up to 5% of annual turnover or even a jail term.
How do we stop planned obsolescence?
The French investigation into Apple was started by a group called Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée (HOP), which translates to ‘stop planned obsolescence’. They used France’s ban on planned obsolescence to bring legal action against Apple in 2018. And it worked. In February 2020, the French government fined Apple €25 million.
HOP haven’t just singled out Apple either. They’ve also filed legal cases against Canon, HP, Epsom and Brother for alleging they deliberately shorten the life of their printer cartridges.
The trouble is, so many companies now put the bottom line above product quality. Even those ‘traditionally’ known for being high-end and reliable. People don’t mind paying more if they know a product will deliver what’s expected and it lasts longer. But pretty much every product now, no matter how expensive, feels like a gamble.
Michael Owen of Cirro Solutions commented:
“I’ve gone from being very loyal to Apple to hugely frustrated with the brand. The trouble is, the lack of competition forces me to stay with them and upgrade every few years.”
He went on to say: “A good friend of mine spent a lot of money on a high-end Sonos system, only to find it really struggling 18 months later.”
It’s great that organisations like HOP and the French government are doing something about it. But what about other governments and lawmakers around the world?
The European Commission is aiming to halve the amount of waste produced in the EU by 2030 by ensuring a range of products will be: ‘recyclable, repairable and designed to last longer’.
The EU also introduced the ‘right to repair’ rules in 2019. This means, from 2021, firms will have to make lighting, washing machines, dishwashers and fridges longer-lasting. And they will have to supply spare parts for them for up to 10 years. Campaigners argue this still isn’t enough.
There are other initiatives to support consumers. Not all driven by lawmakers and governments. Things like Repair Cafés– free meeting places that help people repair items.
The first Repair Café opened in 2009 in Amsterdam. Today they are 2,093 in 36 countries, including the UK. Highlighting the growing trend for consumers to not automatically dispose of broken goods. Be it for environmental or monetary reasons. And demonstrating resistance to planned obsolescence.
Consumers aren’t the only ones suffering – Mother Nature is too.
As more electrical products die on us before their time, the amount of waste produced continues to climb. The world’s e-waste mountain grew by 50m tonnes in 2019 alone. Half of this was large household items, and heating and cooling equipment. The rest was made up of computers, tablets, smartphones and TVs. Unfortunately, only 20% of this was officially recycled.
This level of e-waste won’t come as a shock. Not when you consider the average lifetime of a desktop printer is a mere five hours and four minutes of actual printing time, according to EU research.
Excessive e-waste isn’t the only thing harming the planet. The manufacturing process creates more pollution, drives up energy consumption, and strips the earth of raw materials.
Who benefits the most from planned obsolescence?
Investors and shareholders of the product manufacturers is the obvious answer. A less considered one – is society. Us. The people that are frustrated by poor quality products and planned obsolescence.
Producing more products, creates more jobs. And by consumers upgrading and buying new (not always through choice), boosts the economy. And a healthy economy is good for society. It pains us to say it. And it’s frustrating to hear, especially when you have to recharge your phone every 30 minutes.
But can this cycle continue? Are companies risking short-term gains for long-term losses as people switch brands? Or are they counting on their competitors to produce equally poor products, so consumers stick with the devil they do know?