Made to Break: Planned Obsolescence and the Right to Repair

This article covers:

  • How planned obsolescence was implemented over a century ago and its effects on our behavior and way of thinking about the products we buy everyday.
  • The positive and negative sides of planned obsolescence as well as recent scandals.
  • Why Right to Repair laws are so important.
  • How planned obsolescence is creating excess waste and using up our resources, as well as proposed solutions such as the circular economic model.
  • Exciting new legislation that was introduced to the House in 2021 called the Fair Repair Act.

In 2013, a carbon filament light bulb in Livermore, California went out for ten hours then turned back on. This is the “centennial lightbulb.” It has been working for over 100 years.

In 1924, a group of the biggest light bulb manufacturers including General Electric, Philips, Osram, and Associated Electrical Industries gathered to coordinate business strategies. They called themselves the Phoebus cartel, after a Greco-Roman epithet for Apollo, the god of light. In order to drive sales, an agreement was struck that each company would artificially reduce the lifespan of lightbulbs from 2,000 to 1,000 hours. It took them a few years of experimenting with materials and quantities to figure out how, but in the end they succeeded in making the lightbulb worse. Consumers were none the wiser.

This is one of the most flagrant examples of planned obsolescence—products being made to become unusable much sooner than they ought to be. Think of your phone operating slowly after a year of use, just in time for a new model release. The practice has become a business model in electronics, household appliances, clothing, and even healthcare. On some level, consumers understand this is happening. This understanding coexists unhappily with the feeling that buying a product with a hidden expiration date feels like just about the most anti-consumer practice a company could engage in.

Companies loathe to get caught engaging in planned obsolescence. Class-action lawsuits often follow. These have mixed success since the practice itself isn’t banned, but more technical illegalities, such as breaking warranty promises, often are. When caught engaging in the practice, companies often settle out of court without admitting fault—all while continuing to lie about degrading their own product. The public apologies they do issue tend to focus on the transparency of their decision-making.

Behind ink cartridges depleting suspiciously quickly and cell phones crashing mysteriously are a series of decisions made to shorten an item’s lifespan. These are part of a larger business strategy—anti-consumer at heart—to not only make people treat appliances like they would produce, but to block their efforts at making repairs. There is an economic cost, for sure, but there is also a human cost. A diabetes patient must spend repeatedly on new types of insulin, which are aggressively marketed to doctors but only offer minor improvements in benefits for tremendous increases in cost. Insurance begins to cover the new types of insulin pumps with unimportant improvements, and old devices—which can run up to $5,000, even with insurance—fall by the wayside.

The true cost of planned obsolescence must also factor in waste, both the depletion of earth’s minerals by needless overproduction and the landfills being filled with toxins that must eventually be dealt with. Buying in the modern day means accepting wasteful, lower-quality items. It is the result of a 100-year process that was equal parts technological innovation and psychological conditioning.

Learning to Consume

According to Giles Slade in Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America,* accepting planned obsolescence as a fact of life was the work of many bright minds in twentieth-century corporations. Its story is impossible to parse from the rise of globalized consumerism. First came innovative improvements like disposable razors and bandaids, which industrialization made affordable to the masses.

The disposable item is a type of planned obsolescence, but it is honest. The fact that a product is meant to be used and thrown away is not hidden from the consumer; it’s the entire point. One razor in 1890 cost about $1.50 ($45 today) and required upkeep, which was sometimes outsourced to barbers and cutlers. Why not buy a pack of disposables instead? Technology had progressed to where a thin blade would not break. It was cheaper, hygienic, and by 1905 the branding promised customers “No stropping. No honing.” Disposable products made life affordable and simple.

Slade’s book tells how the practice of deliberate obsolescence began in the offices of General Motors (GM) and Ford. In the 1920s, most households that could afford a car had purchased one. Neither Ford or GM engineers wanted to compromise the car’s inner workings to cheapen their product. Henry Ford was an engineer—and an old school one at that—who preferred to build the most durable item. GM’s CEO was Alfred P. Sloan. He was also an engineer but with an ear attuned to the rhythms of the burgeoning field of consumer psychology and its associated fields: research and advertising. Unable to improve on the underlying technology, Sloan made a gamble. It’s impossible to not hear a Don Draper pitch in Sloan’s idea: “it’s the next thing.”

Meet the 1923 Chevrolet Superior.

1923 Chevrolet Superior

Compare it to the 1924 Model T.

1924 Model T

Slade tells of how GM’s design would focus on style, with a longer hood and rounder lines to give the appearance of luxury and stand out from the boxy, workmanlike build of the Model T. Another aesthetic change that proved advantageous to GM was color. Cars produced before 1923 came only in black, a decision research revealed as unpopular. Variety in color led to GM capturing a larger share of the market, and Ford implemented the same changes not long after.

From then on, every year would bring the expectation of a different door, a sleeker hood, an updated upholstery. The term for this type of superficial change, the impression of improved style and small upgrades which rely on consumers’ perception of their value is style obsolescence—and it proved more successful than expected. GM hadn’t just convinced customers that the Model T was a relic, they taught consumers that older cars were outdated and newer models were preferable. The yearly model was a breakthrough in consumer psychology. It conclusively proved that you could convince people to spring for a big purchase with novelty alone.

Technological obsolescence defined many of the spending trends of the twentieth century: better calculators, faster microchips, cell phones smaller than a cinder block. Yet, it wouldn’t be wrong to draw a straight line from Ford and GM’s breakthrough through the rise of consumerism, fast fashion in the late twentieth century, and the eventual consumption-fueled globalized economies of the twenty-first. It was as if a dormant drive, kept in check by the limits of production, awakened in the minds of the consumer. Buying something a new a little sooner than needed became normal. Planned obsolescence is one of the negative externalities of consumerism. When nothing lasts, the unsavory practice of making-to-break slips past, concealed among true innovation.

Planned Obsolescence Today

According to a complaint filed by Arizona’s attorney general in 2012, Apple released the iPhone 5, advertising it’s “blazing fast performance.” In 2015, Apple released the iPhone 6 using the same words to describe its speed. The iPhone 7, launched in 2016, claimed to be the best one yet. This is a pattern Apple would continue; every device was blazing fast and top of the line.

Per the complaint, as early as 2012, iPhone 5 devices began shutting down for no apparent reason. In 2016, the iPhone 6 began to do the same. Users figured the shutdowns were somehow related to the battery, which would spontaneously deplete by as much as twenty percent. Apple began referring to this issue internally as an Unexpected Power Off (UPO).

Looking at the Arizona filing, the reason behind the UPOs was faulty batteries failing to handle the energy demanded by iPhones. For any action taken on a phone, from a change in brightness to a placed call, the battery must have the sufficient power to match what the phone needs. When it can’t meet those demands, the phone shuts off.

Apple claimed the issue only affected a small number of iPhone 6 devices. This was a lie, according to Arizona, and not even a worldwide admission. The report was only released in Chinese for the Chinese market. By late 2016, millions of users around the world were experiencing UPOs across different devices.

Apple actively prevented the simple solution, a battery replacement. Even if a customer was willing to pay out of pocket, Apple would not replace a battery unless it failed Apple’s diagnostic test, which did not account for the issue causing shutdowns. This, coupled with Apple’s monopolistic policy that even opening your phone—much less having an outside party work on it—voids its warranty was a deterrent to most. But the battery problems wouldn’t go away by pretending they weren’t happening, so Apple decided to cover it up in a particularly deceptive way: throttling.

Throttling is the intentional slowing of devices to control how much energy they use. Without any warning, admission of what had gone wrong, or explanation of what they were doing, Apple released an update under the pretext of bug fixing. The Arizona complaint explains that included in the update was a software algorithm that intentionally reduced system performance, slowing down iPhone 5 through 7 devices when they were demanding too much power. This avoided the spontaneous shutdowns at the cost of making phones previously advertised as “blazing fast” sluggish. Apple tried to make its products significantly worse to avoid being caught, and if allowed to have their way, customers would have to update their lagging phones. It took multiple lawsuits in 2017 for an apology, a payout, and a change in policy to lower battery prices and allow consumers to turn off the throttling feature. Litigation has continued to today, with several lawsuits underway in Europe and settlements of $500 million in the US and $3.4 million in Chile.

Additionally, Apple’s policy of declaring older products “vintage” and “obsolete”—making parts harder to find and then cutting off all support—makes repairs difficult. The sum of these practices make up the planned obsolescence business model that many companies operate on: a steady release of products marketed as cutting edge that resist repair and degrade so rapidly that consumers become accustomed, shielded from scrutiny by the complexities of understanding constantly changing technology.

In the modern age, it’s technological complexity that aids companies in concealing attempts at planned obsolescence. Apple’s case has similarities with three lawsuits faced by the printing company Hewlett-Packard (HP). The practices that caused the lawsuits were displaying low ink messages when cartridges were not depleted, using the more expensive color cartridges to print black and white requests, and manufacturing an undisclosed expiration date for printers and cartridges. HP argued these practices were legitimate printing techniques, just like Apple’s claim that throttling helps performance. The practices weren’t the problem, they claimed, it was the transparency of the decisions. Both companies settled.

This type of obsolescence is harder to catch. The onus is placed on buyers to understand the intricacies of microchips and algorithms, things most don’t have the time or know-how to learn. In this market, someone who wishes to have a product for years or is happy with their current operating system is a detriment to business. The natural enemy of the obsolete is the repairable, but companies avoid repairable products to whatever extent public opinion and legislation will allow. Due to ecological effects and consumer concerns, these policies have been facing backlash.

Right to Repair

Right to Repair refers to legislation preventing companies from monopolizing services that fix their products. Companies loathe revealing the tricks of assembly and guard them under the guise of intellectual property, figuring that if they are the only source of repairs, they can set whatever price they’d like. Right to Repair laws can be as simple as requiring companies to sell parts and as arcane as stopping companies from making products hard to repair by using adhesives instead of screws.

In 2021, 25 states either passed or considered Right to Repair laws that cover different appliances. Some cover all electronics. Some cover only vehicles, and so on. The sharing of diagnostic data is particularly important, since repair people need to access it in order to fix smart devices like refrigerators and washing machines.

Massachusetts, for example, forced car companies to implement open access data, meaning independent repair shops could use diagnostic data gathered from a car’s GPS or internet connection. France went a different direction, requiring electronics manufacturers to offer “repairability scores” for their products and divulge repair information so customers know more about a product before a purchase and have access to manuals that teach them how to go about it.

This democratization of repair knowledge created a cottage industry of do-gooders, hobbyists, and experts who teach others how to fix their items online for free. People like repair technician Louis Rossman have amassed large followings by filming instructional videos along with blistering takedowns of companies’ shoddy engineering and repair practices.

As subsequent generations grow more comfortable with technology, they’ll be more confident fixing their own things, equipped with parts and guided by manuals that Right to Repair activists fought to make accessible.

E-waste

Repair laws not only function to curb anti-consumer practices, but to fight the problem of electronic waste (e-waste). Each technological innovation renders what came before obsolete. The landfills of the world are filled with flip phones, ancient looking cathode-ray tube televisions, and increasingly modern devices. 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2019 alone. E-waste is among the fastest growing pollutants, much of it toxic, containing lead, barium, and cadmium—chemical elements that can damage just about every part of the human body.

Source: Science News

The waste has to be stored somewhere, which means filling both domestic and international waste sites, often found in developing countries, poisoning populations that are less capable of dealing with the consequences. The economic impact is also immense, with around $62 billion of valuable recyclable material like gold, silver, copper, and palladium abandoned or on its way to inceneration. Our planet is plentiful, but it is not inexhaustible. We are well on our way to depleting elements that our society has come to rely on for both frivolous purposes and for life-saving uses like medical tech. Planned obsolescence has hastened the march to resource scarcity.

The circular economic model, which works to produce more sustainable items that can be recycled and reincorporated to make the same products, seeks to correct this. The furniture and appliance company IKEA has committed itself to becoming a circular business, offering buyback programs to reuse or resell, along with spare parts to increase the lifetime of products.

What This Means For Consumers

The pressure put on companies by governments, Right to Repair crusaders, and environmental activists has caused some companies to reform, publishing do-it-yourself manuals or taking other steps (as Apple did) after being unfriendly to the idea for many years. Since they have been at the forefront of pioneering anti-do-it-yourself monopolism through their repair service—the “Genius Bar”—Apple has decided to course-correct and provide parts and tools to customers who wish to fix their own product. Performing a repair won’t automatically void the warranty, but further damage caused by an amateurish attempt might.

The sword of Damocles that hangs over corporations is the Fair Repair Act, which might force their hands to get ahead of the problem and make parts available. Introduced in the House of Representatives on June 17th, 2021, it requires “an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to make diagnostic, maintenance, and repair equipment available to independent repair providers.” There has been no vote on the law yet, and it remains to be seen how those that vote against it will justify their actions to people like electric wheelchair owner Kenny Maestas, who testified in a Right to Repair hearing in Colorado. His chair was unusable for 60 days. It took the manufacturer over a month to send their own technician for an inspection and almost another month to get the chair repaired. In Kenny’s words, “It’s never appropriate to make a human being with a critical care need wait over two months for a repair that could have been completed in two days.”

In our society, corporations are incentivized to continuously increase profit margins. When mass production led to overproduction, planned obsolescence was a new way to get people to buy more. Today the practice is fully developed, ubiquitous, and oftentimes negative. Our planet is being pillaged to keep up with the demand for new stuff that will be added to our growing landfills. Giving people the right to repair their own products can make a difference. Ultimately, being aware of the games corporations play gives consumers some leverage, and perhaps, the desire to vote with their wallet.

*This article includes an affiliate link to a book on Bookshop.org. 2ndLook News will receive commissions from purchases made through this link.

Editors: Craig Carroll, Stacia Wilson
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By Nick Ramos

Nick Ramos is a Cuban-born writer and consultant with 3 years of experience in policy research for businesses looking to expand operations into Cuba. He attended NYU’s Gallatin school and now consults on Cuban/American history for television, news media, and individual clients. He is the host of The History of the Cuban Revolution podcast. A former debate national champion, he has coached kids to overcome speech impediments. As a writer on 2ndLook, he focuses on the ways in which history has been misunderstood or distorted, and how to use that information to bridge partisan divides.

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Judy Schneider
Judy Schneider
3 months ago

Great article!

Scott Kalter
Scott Kalter
2 months ago

Thanks so much for including an article on this topic. There are so few people that are exposed to issues like these and the direct impacts they have. Also thanks for referencing Louis Rossman who deserves a lot of credit for fighting for our right to repair.

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