What's obsolescence?

---This section is bein revised---

The «Planned Obsolescence»1 is deliberate reduction of a product’s lifetime so as to reduce its replacement frequency.

We can easily link obsolescence origins with Fordism2, which meant an increase of productivity and the reduction of production cost. This fact let the employees have enough purchasing power to be able to consume products by the firm they worked for. They call them Roaring Twenties: mass production and consumption for fun.

In 1928, Printer’s Ink (a trade magazine) warned its readers that «An article that refuses to wear out is a tragedy of business». However, this praxis was officially born in 1932, as a proposal by Bernard London3 (a real estate broker) to reactivate consumption and thus, palliate the Great depression consequences. Nevertheless, the expression «Planned Obsolescence» didn’t become popular until 1954, when Brooks Stevens (an american industrial designer), used it as the title of a conference. In his own words, obsolescence was «Installing in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary».

Planned obsolescence is broader than it seems, has evolved and includes different practices. In the sixties, Vance Packard (a social critic) distinguished among the design obsolescence which he called obsolescence of function and the desire obsolescence, psychological, also called perceived obsolescence. In the first case, the company designs and produces the product so that it spoils; in the second one, the company persuades the buyer to acquire a new one. Fashion is a plain example of this last one: using marketing, it leads the user to purchase a new product even though the preceding hasn’t lost its functionality.

But beyond this classification, we can also find other and more subtle cases, as systemic obsolescence, that means to launch new products which are not compatible with previous ones, such that it becomes uncomfortable to use them and even difficult to find replacements. Or notification obsolescence that is to warn systematically the consumer that he needs to change a component which, actually, is completely functional. Thereby, perfectly functional products are discarded.

Nonetheless, obsolescence seems unavoidable in a capitalist system, hold by a free market (generally, loosely regulated) within firms and individuals search some benefit. Obsolescent products force the consumer to have them repaired or to buy a new ones, and hence, they help maintaining the trading system in a market that tend to overgrow regarding to the real necessities.

It’s easy to think that this system produces workplaces, as, if some stuff spoils, somebody will have to make a new one; even though, because of industrial delocalization and the gradual technical improvements on the productive process, that’s not so. And it can easily be observed in each industrial sector. In EUA, agriculture moved from employing a 70% of population in 1870, to only a 3% in 2004, meanwhile the cultivated area has been multiplied by 5, from 76M of hectares in 1870 to 411M in 2004, according to the FAO (Food and Agriculture organization of the United Nations). Similarly, manufactures, even in the developing countries —where salaries are relatively low— are replacing human work with robotics; this is the case of Foxconn (the world’s largest electronic manufacturer).

Even though, we cannot ignore that obsolescence can stimulate the technological progress as it ensures a future market to sell the new products and thus, recover its development inversion cost. So, the consumer can enjoy new services and facilities, despite the product life is short. But this praxis drifts in the fact that the consumer does not only wish the design and functionalities of the new product, but he’s also forced to consume it.

During the last years companies have trend to opt for the development of more energy efficient product; mostly because of the increasingly evident lack of resources proper of a growth economy. But in spite they have focused more on sustainability, resources are still wasted in the obtention and production process and in the product itself. Planned Obsolescence is a player more on this open cycle that entails so much waste and has a major impact on the environment.

There’s only to ask, towards which world are we going?

1or «Built-in Obsolescence»
2Production system based on line production, developed by Henry Ford (an American automaker) which permited make production more profitable and so make the product affordable for a massive market.
3In his book Ending depression through planned obsolescence.