Providing tools and support to families, citizens, and activists to counter our consumerist culture and to create new social norms about how to have a high quality of life and a reduced ecological footprint.

Understanding Obsolescence

One of the main forces driving high levels of consumption and waste today is obsolescence—the process of an item or technology being replaced, outdated, or falling out of use. Obsolescence can be a spontaneous process by which genuinely innovative technologies win in the marketplace, or it can be planned by manufacturers through methods like regular changes in product styles or deliberately building poor-quality items.

Spontaneous obsolescence is generally a positive process and is a byproduct of genuine innovation—classic examples include the automobile replacing the buggy and the computer replacing the typewriter. In contrast, it is planned obsolescence, combined with other factors like intensive advertising and the rise in disposable income, that is responsible for much of the unnecessary waste we produce. Examples of planned obsolescence include:

Obsolescence of desirability

Have you ever noticed how the “in” color for home appliances is always changing? Recently it's been stainless steel or copper, in the 1980s it was black, in the 1970s it was avocado green—and now green refrigerators are considered “retro.”

Home buyers and sellers often replace their well-functioning appliances just to keep up with the style, which will change again in just a few years. To stimulate interest and sales, trade associations carefully research and “forecast” which colors are going to be popular.

Or consider the latest microwaves, equipped with “must-have” electronic cook sensors. In these cases, manufacturers and advertisers manipulate consumer demand by promoting attributes that have little to do with an item’s real performance or utility. In some cases, utility is even impaired because previously straightforward items are complicated with expensive and unrepairable gadgetry.

Obsolescence of durability

We’ve all sighed over a broken toaster oven or microwave: “they just don’t make them like they used to.” Do you have a clunky ‘80s microwave in your basement? It will probably last longer than your new one. Products today are made with cheaper materials and have shorter lifespans; it is widely believed that they often break right around the time the warranty expires. They’re often too poorly made to invest in a repair, and repairs can easily cost as much as a replacement, resulting in increasing volumes of waste.

Another example is the non-replaceable batteries common in small electronics. By the time the battery dies a new model will be out, and professional battery replacements are expensive. Apple charges exactly the same price to replace an iPod Shuffle battery as it does for a brand new iPod Shuffle. The economical choice for the consumer is often to buy a new unit and throw out the old one, even though this wastes valuable resources.  

Obsolescence by non-compatibility

Until recently, almost every cell phone had a different plug on its charger. Laptop adapter plugs are still widely different, even though the adapters themselves are often identical. Every digital camera seems to need a different proprietary battery and charger. Have you ever tried to find new ink for a printer several years old? Manufacturers could do much more to streamline common items and accessories like batteries, chargers, and adapters.

On a larger scale, obsolescence by non-compatibility takes place when an entire class of products is rendered non-functional, such as the 2009 digital TV switchover that immediately made millions of TVs unable to receive signals without an additional box.

TAKE-HOME MESSAGE: Although some obsolescence is merely perceived, much of it is intentionally planned—largely in an effort to maximize consumption and profits for companies. Before consumers can take a new approach to their stuff, we need to understand what obsolescence is, how it works, and how it is often created out of thin air.