Planned Obsolescence and Your Right to Repair

Have you ever wondered why some consumer goods don’t last? From cell phones to household appliances and clothing to automobile tires, some products we use
every day could last much longer. But they don’t.

Have you ever wondered why major purchases — such as vehicles or large
appliances — always seem to break down immediately after a manufacturer’s
warranty expires?

Or perhaps you’ve asked how an advanced society can manufacture materials
durable enough to venture into space, but cannot produce a car tire that will
last more than a few years? The answer lies in planned obsolescence. It’s a
marketing and manufacturing trick meant to keep you buying

In this post, we’ll take a close look at planned obsolescence. We’ll uncover
some manufacturers using these questionable practices, and we’ll explain the
Right to Repair movement
— a modern campaign
promoting US consumers’ right to maintain their purchases for longevity and
sustainability. 

On planned obsolescence

As Investopedia
explains, “Planned obsolescence describes a strategy of deliberately ensuring that
the current version of [a product] will become out of date or useless within a
known period.” It’s a purposeful and proactive move to guarantee that consumers
will seek replacements, and boost demand. Planned obsolescence means a product
will become obsolete on a set date, or within a specific time. 

Obsolescence can be achieved by:

  • Limiting a product’s ability to withstand normal wear-and-tear

  • The introduction of a far superior replacement model

  • Intentionally designing a product to cease proper function within a specific
    time frame

Examples could include:

  • Automobile tires that wear out after 30,000 miles

  • Clothing items that tear after limited use

  • Computers, cell phones or tablets that cannot perform with updated software
    or apps

  • Electronic devices that have difficult-to-replace batteries

How significant is planned obsolescence?

The lifetimes of electrical devices and
appliances

are getting shorter. The German Environmental Agency (UBA) commissioned
a study by the Öko-Institut e.V. and Bonn University. Afterward, UBA
President Maria Krautzberger said: “Many appliances have much too short a
life-span. This is ecologically unacceptable. The manufacture of products
consumes precious resources, and pollutants and greenhouse gases are a strain on
the environment and climate.”

Clearly, it’s time to think about the minimum requirements of product lifetimes
and durability. Perhaps the answer is a minimum period of durability for
electronic goods. Too many devices are replaced — due to slower functions or
unattainable batteries — even though they are still in good working order. 

Planned obsolescence and sustainability

Planned obsolescence works against sustainability. Every time a consumer
product is tossed in the trash or dumped in a landfill, it damages our
environment in the long term. Whenever an obsolete product needs to be replaced,
the raw materials must be sourced (which could cause deforestation and
scarring).
A replacement must then be manufactured (which can cause air and noise
pollution). And finally, the product must be placed into the hands of a consumer
— a delivery process that still relies mostly on fossil fuels.

Examples: Cell phones and tires

Automobile tires and cell phones are perfect examples of planned obsolescence
working against our environment.

Current data is difficult to qualify, but the Environmental Protection
Agency

says that as of 2003, roughly 80 percent of used tires are now recycled in some
way. It is excellent news that so many tires are reused, but roughly 60 million
tires still find their way into landfills — or are simply dumped in the
wilderness. 

Cell phones, which are smaller but highly resource-dependent, are another prime
example. Consider the “guts” of your cell phone. These little marvels of
technology require precious metals such as
cobalt,
copper, gold and other conflict
minerals
,
which must be continually sourced by manufacturers. They also need plastics,
silicones and resins, all things that need to be manufactured in factories. 

The damaging effects of planned obsolescence on our environment are genuine.
That’s why many consumers are shocked when they hear about high-profile
organizations — such as Apple — using these manipulative marketing tactics. 

Apple sued in 2017 for planned obsolescence

A few years ago, Apple openly admitted to slowing down older iPhone models to
encourage new product sales, according to
Forbes.
Then in 2018, Apple and
Samsung were investigated in France for the same shenanigans. This
should ring alarm bells for conscientious consumers, for a number of reasons:

  • Purposely causing a piece of technology to become useless to generate sales
    is highly unethical.

  • Preventing consumers from repairing their goods, even replacing basic
    components like batteries, means increased new product sales.

  • Consumers spend additional funds, and unneeded strain is put on our
    environment, all for the sake of revenue.

The good news is that some organizations are fighting back against planned
obsolescence.

The Right to Repair Movement & organizations against planned obsolescence

The Right to Repair & fair repair concepts began in the US, with the auto
industry. Massachusetts was the first state to pass a Motor Vehicle Owner’s
Right to Repair
Act
.
in 2012. This groundbreaking state legislation required vehicle manufacturers to
provide information to allow anyone to repair their vehicles. While not a
federal law, all auto manufacturers that sell in the US have agreed to abide by
Massachusetts’ law, in all 50 states, as of 2018. 

Inspired by this approach in Massachusetts, the Digital Right to Repair
Coalition
was founded in 2013 to carry the same principles to consumer
electronics, like computers and cell phones.

The Digital Right to Repair Coalition

The Digital Right to Repair Coalition was
incorporated in 2013 as a 501(c)6 Trade Association. Per their website, they
chose to be a Trade Association rather than a charity, because their goal is to
lobby for repair-friendly legislation, standards and regulations. So
Repair.org is 100 percent membership-funded.

Today, the Coalition focuses on consumer electronics including smartphones,
computers, laptops and tablets. But their attentions go beyond the standard
focus of smartphones to address the repairability and reusability of other
personal devices — such as pacemakers or hearing aids. 

Ultimately, it is up to consumers to demand more from electronics manufacturers.
Whether that means longer-lasting warranties or the ability to repair their
devices with ease, these companies can do better. For now,
recycling smartphones and devices is one
way to reduce the pollution and earth scarring associated with manufacturing
processes.