By Alyssa Chan ’16, THURJ Staff
If PC users had never needed to upgrade from Windows 1998, Microsoft would have quickly gone out of business. After all, the software giant thrives on creating new operating systems and encouraging users to purchase the upgrade. Within a few years, stubborn consumers who had chosen to stick with the old version usually find themselves unable to sync with their more up-to-date peers and run into trouble when they cannot open Word and Powerpoint documents sent by their friends.
The above is an example of planned obsolescence, a strategy of industrial design in which products are engineered to have shorter lifespans, necessitating more frequent replacement and resulting in increased profits for companies. There are several different methods typically employed to induce obsolescence. Functional obsolescence refers to products that stop working after a certain period of time. In this model, products are engineered to break earlier than necessary, or companies prematurely discontinue support and stop selling parts to repair dysfunctional units. This forces consumers to buy new products rather than fixing the old ones. Systemic obsolescence is the practice of making a product obsolete by changing the system in which it operates. The aforementioned example involving computer software is a perfect illustration of this concept. Finally, perceived obsolescence makes a product seem obsolete, usually through changes in its appearance, although it may still function perfectly well. A classic example is an article of clothing that is no longer worn because it has gone out of style. Department stores and fashion retailers like GAP and Ann Taylor would find themselves in a lot of trouble if our grandmothers’ sturdy nylon petticoats from the 1950s were still considered wearable today.
In an interview with THURJ, Dr. Robert Frosch spoke about the implications of planned obsolescence for the economy and the environment. Trained as a theoretical physicist, Dr. Frosch is often credited as the father of industrial ecology, a field that studies the relationship between industrial development and environmental sustainability. Throughout his career, Dr. Frosch has held prominent positions within the Department of Defense and the Navy and served as Assistant Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Administrator of NASA, and Vice President of General Motors Corporation in charge of research laboratories. He retired from General Motors in 1993, shortly before joining the Kennedy School of Government here at Harvard as a Senior Associate affiliated with the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program.
Dr. Frosch’s extensive experience in product development provides him a unique perspective on this topic. He states that the driving force for premature obsolescence is more often fashion than function, and that the competition to introduce novel products as cheaply as possible has a far greater impact on obsolescence than actual decrease in functionality. In other words, functional and systemic obsolescence have limited effects on product lifespans; perceived obsolescence plays a much larger role. The structure of the sales industry reflects this trend, since the field of advertising is entirely based on convincing customers to purchase new products, often to replace perfectly functional ones. The drive to increase consumption and maximize profits has caused a steady shift toward an increasingly “disposable” society. This trend is evidenced by the prevalence of single- and short term-use products, such as paper cups and plastic bags and, further, by the increasing disposability of larger products, from appliances like toasters and microwaves to electronics like televisions and computers. Over the past few decades, the expected lifespan of products has drastically diminished, so that most consumers today purchase products with the expectation that they will need to be replaced within a couple of years.
Clearly, planned obsolescence and overconsumption raise significant environmental concerns, just a few of which include an increasing rate of natural resource depletion, pollution, and waste production. As we are constantly reminded, our “throw away” lifestyle is unsustainable and deeply irresponsible, and it is vital that we change it soon. Yet, while the effects of overconsumption have been widely studied and are frequently discussed in the media, a thoughtful analysis of the factors that drive consumption is not as frequently presented. This disparity is troubling because we must not only appreciate why overconsumption is problematic but also understand why overconsumption occurs in the first place. This understanding is the key to both limiting destructive behavior and shaping new, more positive trends.
Planned obsolescence is often framed as a plot by corporations to increase profits while consumers and the environment pay the price. Films like The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard and books like Made to Break by Giles Slade portray the issue with extreme rhetoric. For example, Slade writes, “As American manufacturers learned how to exploit obsolescence, American consumers increasingly accepted it in every aspect of their lives…The most recent stage in the history of product obsolescence began when producers recognized their ability to manipulate the failure rate of manufactured materials” (5). While effective at raising awareness and inciting action, such a politicized portrayal of the issue inhibits a deeper understanding. Ultimately, these methods are well-intentioned, yet ineffective, at reaching the core of the problem.
The first step to understanding planned obsolescence is realizing that its scope is wider than usually acknowledged. Planned obsolescence encompasses much more than a major driving force for consumerism and waste. Dr. Frosch described the vital role of planned obsolescence in our economy, stating, “There are industrial sectors (clothing, etc.) which are in fact making their money on unessential replacements…but large parts of the economy are simply getting out better stuff that is more capable of doing things for people as a result of natural economic forces of competition.” In other words, the conventional idea of planned obsolescence as an entirely negative force should be reexamined.
Planned obsolescence is, arguably, the root of progress and a natural result of advancement. Whenever a new discovery is made, all previous advancements become obsolete. Thus, all forms of innovation create obsolescence. Consider the disappearance of cassette tapes as they were replaced by CDs and eventually iPods and MP3 players. In the 1940s, Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase “creative destruction” to describe this phenomenon. Hence, planned obsolescence has many positive outcomes in this sense—most importantly, the creation of new, increasingly effective and efficient products. In this way, planned obsolescence is ingrained in our society. Most people readily accept that anything we produce today is temporary and will one day be superceded by something better. Indeed, this drive for progress compels most of our research. Thus, planned obsolescence is not as simple as it initially seems and can actually describe a wide range of scenarios. While it can refer to a method of artificially increasing consumption without true functional gain, it fills the equally important role of stimulating consumption based on true technological advancement or progress. These distinct phenomena can be referred to respectively as induced obsolescence and natural obsolescence.
Distinguishing between the two types of planned obsolescence requires an understanding of the worth that customers find in new products and an examination of how and why we assign value to products. There are two basic types of value: functional value, or the ability of a product to fulfill its intended purpose, and perceived value, which encompasses any additional worth a customer attaches to a product that is unrelated to its function. Natural obsolescence entails an increase in the functional value of a product and, therefore, occurs as a result of advancement. Thus, there is no direct way to minimize natural obsolescence without also slowing progress. The most effective response is to limit the consequent damage, such as by improving the efficiency and sustainability of production. Implementation of closed loop systems of production can facilitate such changes by reducing the extraction of natural resources and relying instead on the reuse and recycling of raw materials.
As explained by Dr. Frosch, the majority of induced obsolescence results from changes in style rather than function. Therefore, addressing induced obsolescence is more difficult, as it involves a shift in our relationship with the products we consume, rather than a change in the products themselves. Perceived value is the major factor to consider in explaining this behavior.
Perceived value is commonly dismissed by environmentalists and activists as a shallow reason for consumption. It is typically associated with factors like style and status, which do not affect the function of a product and are therefore considered illegitimate concerns. Yet, perceived value-based consumerism is not inherently negative; in fact, perceived value leads to positive consumer behavior in many instances. Consider fair-trade products: they do not taste better, have different caloric value, and are no healthier than normal products. The value of fair trade is entirely perceived and derived from various sources, including the satisfaction of making responsible choices and the status gained by “social responsibility.” In this case, the perceived value drives consumers toward more positive behaviors. Thus, the actual problem is not perceived value itself, but the value system on which it is based. In fact, harnessing perceived value may be one of the most effective ways to combat the negative effects of planned obsolescence in encouraging overconsumption.
Rather than prescribing a halt in consumption, we should consider using perceived value as a positive influence toward more responsible consumption. The way to move forward and effect change is not to preach the reununciation of material goods but rather to examine and ultimately change the way we as a society assign worth. Instead of obsessing over the newest electronics or this season’s fashion, we should value products made through sustainable processes that do not pollute the earth or destroy natural habitats. Rather than using rhetoric and charged language or assigning blame, we desperately need some self-reflection. It is only through honest re-evaluation of our societal principles that positive and lasting change will be achieved.