On September 7, 2022, Apple announced its latest product releases during its Far Out event. As expected, the iPhone 14 was headlining the new generation of products, spotting a fairly similar look and slightly upgraded specs to its iPhone 13 predecessor. Despite not offering much of an upgrade, people still queued and camped outside Apple stores all over the world, eager to spend a small fortune to get their hands on a product very similar to what they already own. Only to watch it become dated, same time next year.
Out of the 200 million phones Apple shipped in 2020, 80% of them were sold to upgraders and not first-time buyers. And this isn't unique to Apple. In fact, it’s the reigning economic model used by most successful companies. Instead of attracting new customers, these companies focus on making sure that the people that already love their brand always have a reason to keep coming back.
But how do they do that? Sure, brand loyalty is one thing, but how do they keep us upgrading so regularly? Well, it’s a lot of factors, but at its heart is a century-old strategy called planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is a practice adopted by companies to produce consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete.. The main idea is simple. The sooner a product breaks or becomes outdated, the sooner people will replace it with a new one.
Many believe it’s a sinister business practice that is the embodiment of corporate greed, and if you trace it back to its origin, it may very well be so. All of this started in the early 20th century when the lightbulb first became a mass-market product. Many might not know this, but the original version of the lightbulb patented by Thomas Edison in 1880 relied on carbon filaments to power the bulbs. These filaments were built to last for around 2,000 hours.
People at the time didn’t leave their lightbulbs on all through the day like we do now. So these things could keep going for months, even years, depending on the conditions. Around 30 years later, the sales of lightbulbs began stagnating. The companies then realized that it would be easier to sell a second bulb to a person whose first one had burned out than it would be to look for new homes that didn’t have lightbulbs.
And so in the 1920s, the famous Phoebus Cartel was born. Represented by the top lightbulb manufacturers in the world, like Germany’s Osram, Netherland’s Philips and the U.S.’s General Electric, the cartel colluded and decided to reduce the lightbulb’s lifetime to around 1,000 hours to boost their slow sales. To ensure adherence to this protocol, they created an audit system to force manufacturers to stick to the 1,000-hour goal, and crush anyone who did not comply.
The world’s first attempt at planned obsolescence succeeded, and the cartel reaped the rewards by producing a lower-quality product that consumers had no option but to buy. Today, 1.5 billion smartphones are sold every single year in part because manufacturers either sell low-quality products that are designed to break down easily, or implement design practices that prevent people from easily repairing these phones when they do break. All this forces them to purchase newer models when their old ones inevitably go bad.
Screens, batteries, cameras and software are designed to stop working in roughly an 18 month cycle in a scheme orchestrated by big corporations to increase revenue at the expense of the consumer. Apple and Samsung have been accused of deliberately making their older phones obsolete by pushing software updates that slow them down in an attempt to coerce users to upgrade.
Apple admitted to this strategy in 2017 and has since paid fines amounting to over $310 million, while Samsung paid a less hefty fine of around $5.7 million. When companies aren’t actively making their older products go bad faster, they use a slightly different trick. In the 1920s, around the same time as the lightbulb cartel, General Motors and its CEO, Alfred P. Sloan devised a new strategy to compete with industry giant Ford. Just like the lightbulb industry, the U.S. market for cars was becoming saturated in the 1920s as almost everyone owned a car and didn’t see a need to change it regularly.
So, instead of trying to find people without cars like Ford was already struggling to do at that time, Sloan took a page out of the fashion industry’s playbook where styles changed every year and created the first annual car model. By slightly updating the color, design and style of their vehicles, GM could release new models each year that only offered minor improvements to what consumers already owned.
Sloan dubbed this the dynamic obsolescence model, and it revolutionized the dying car industry. People stopped thinking about cars as transportation machines and began seeing them as a fashionable expression of their personalities. GM was able to convince consumers that buying one car that could last you a lifetime is simply not enough and that they’d have to keep buying new models to stay fashionable.
Doesn’t that sound familiar? Every year, gadget manufacturers like Apple, Google and Samsung come up with new colors and designs for their smartphones, encouraging you to splurge for the upgraded model so you can remain fashionable. Samsung bombards its customers with an exhaustive lineup that supposedly caters to all needs, wants and prices. And just one year later like clockwork, all of those devices are outdated and need to be refreshed.
In 2014, they offered a staggering 56 new models, and while they have cut the lineup dramatically since, they still managed to release more than 30 models in 2021. Apple, on the other hand, adopts a different strategy. Since 2011, they’ve been launching a new iPhone every September through highly anticipated and hyped events that always promise to give us “the best iPhone ever”, a tag that barely lasts for the next 12 months. .
This rise of dynamic obsolescence was only one piece of a three-sided puzzle. The second piece was the rise of consumerism in the U.S. People began seeing the consumption of products as a form of self-expression and as a means of achieving happiness. And the third was the industrial era, characterized by advancements in technology and infrastructure that allowed companies to streamline production, making these products not only cheaper, but also much quicker to manufacture.
With these three pieces in place, before long the consumer market was flooded with all sorts of products in different shapes, colors and sizes, promoting impulse buys and pushing people to purchase things not because they needed them, but simply because they were new and fashionable. Speaking of fashion, there is no industry in the world that embraced dynamic obsolescence more than the fashion industry. Fashion has always changed periodically, but things became much worse in the 1990s because of something called fast fashion.
Fast fashion is basically turning trendy ideas from catwalks or celebrity culture into cheap clothing at breakneck speeds. A design can go from just an idea on a piece of paper to the shelves of high street stores in as little as 15 days. The industrial revolution brought with it things like the sewing machine that heavily reduced the cost of production. And with countries around the world trying to offer cheap labor in an effort to compete in the global market, clothes became easier, quicker and cheaper to produce.
By the 1960s and 1970s, young people were creating new trends and clothing, like cars before it, became a popular form of self-expression. But it wasn’t until the 1990s and 2000s that low-cost fast fashion reached its peak. Retailers such as Zara, H&M and Topshop took the design elements of high-end designers and mass-produced the fastest, cheapest and trendiest clothes the industry had ever seen.
Because trends come and go in as little as two weeks, a huge pile of clothes are thrown out and replaced with newer trendier options. It’s no wonder that 85% of all textiles, around 92 million tons, make their way to landfills each year. To put that in perspective, that’s around an entire garbage truck of clothes dumped at a landfill somewhere in the world every single second. And the tech industry isn’t that much better. Because of our high consumption of electronics, we are generating roughly 54 million tons of e-waste every year with only 20% of it being recycled.
Unlike what we’re told by corporations, recycling electronics isn’t an easy task because of how expensive it is and some of the toxic materials in these products that can be detrimental to humans upon exposure. The sad truth about all of this is that we’re currently stuck in a vicious cycle. Planned and dynamic obsolescence practices lead to the demand for new products. And as this demand shoots up, companies ramp up their supply, which leads to more cheaper and lesser quality products being produced.
To make matters worse, we can’t even afford all of these upgrades. Which is why companies who adopt this model also rely on credit purchases to sustain it. In reality, most people can’t afford to spend $1,000 every year on the new iPhone. So we depend on the credit model to fund these purchases, without understanding that a $1,000 phone upgrade charged to a credit card could be more than double that amount with the interest paid off.
The main problem with planned obsolescence is that it’s spread across multiple industries, and it’s fed by our incessant want for newer, shinier things. Whether it’s electronics, cars or fashion, the message these companies are conveying is clear. The product you have is now old, so you should go out and buy a new one. This form of psychological persuasion is a crucial part of consumerism. It allows companies to boost their revenues without offering any substantial improvements.
The one defense that some people have to the idea of planned obsolescence is that while it might seem like a dishonorable way of conducting business, it is pivotal in creating increased revenues which helps to promote economic growth in a capitalist world. On a macroeconomic scale, the rapid turnover of consumer products powers higher production, which in turn powers growth and creates jobs. It also encourages innovation and can rapidly improve the quality of products.
And while all of this is certainly true, at what cost? This model is creating people who derive their happiness on material things, the depletion of natural resources and the pollution of our planet. Are the economic benefits worth all the apparent dangers? Why don’t we instead choose to build longer-lasting products and diversify the existing economic model.
That way, we wouldn’t have to deal with the negatives of planned obsolescence, and maybe we will finally be able to achieve a higher level of happiness beyond the material sense. There’s a lightbulb in a fire station in Livermore, California, that has been shining for a record 120 years. Called the Centennial Light Bulb, it’s an incandescent bulb made with 19th-century technology.
The next time you find yourself contemplating whether you should upgrade that device you own that’s currently working just fine, take a minute to think of this lightbulb. Of a time when things were tools and not statements, when our happiness was not in the existence of the thing itself, but in the work it could do for us. The Centennial Light Bulb was built to give light, and if it still does that perfectly 120 years later. Is there any need to upgrade?