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Built-in obsolescence

Dirk Kaufmann / sp
November 9, 2012

Many companies deliberately shorten product lifespans to ensure consumers continue spending. 'Built-in' or 'planned obsolescence' may be a savvy business strategy, but it hurts consumers and people in poorer countries.

A computer cable being made
Image: Fotolia/Smileus

Has your printer or coffee machine died shortly after the warranty period expired? Have you ever tried changing the constantly-tired battery of your smart phone? Or was a replacement for your Notebook supposedly more expensive than the current, new model?

If the answer is "yes" to any of the above, you know what 'planned obsolescence' is: the process of becoming obsolete; that is, outdated or no longer usable.

It makes good business sense for companies to create a product with a limited life span. For the manufacturer, it means the production process is cheaper and ensures that in future the consumer will need to purchase new products and services that the manufacturer offers as replacements for the old ones.

But the business practice has devastating consequences. Customers are constantly forced to toss out defunct gadgets and parts, and buy new ones. The environment suffers from an increased use of resources, and the throw-away mentality means more toxic electronic waste from industrialized countries piling up in the landfills of developing ones.

Electronic waste at a landfill in Ghana
A throw-away industrialized society creates serious problems in poorer nationsImage: DW

Electronics giants are the worst offenders

Stefan Schridde runs the German website murks-nein-danke.de (Bungling, no thank you) where frustrated consumers describe their experiences with products that are designed to fail within a certain period of time.

In an interview with DW, Schridde said instances of planned obsolescence are common in electronic products. "When electricity flows, you can do a lot," he said.

Indeed, most of the complaints on Schridde's website are about companies in the electronics, computer and telecommunications sectors. And heavyweights, such as Epson, Brother, Philipps and Apple find the most mention. By far the worst offender among the online complaints by November 7 was Korean electronics giant Samsung.

Schridde said most of the built-in obsolescence is seen in small and cheap parts where companies often use "plastic instead of metal" to cut costs.

That view is echoed by economist Dominik Enste from the Cologne Institute for Economic Research.

"Companies don't always use products that are particularly durable," he said. Such practices don't just contradict the idea of sustainability, he said, but also show that these companies don't take their social responsibilities seriously.

Schridde said that the longevity of products seems to play no role in product development. Instead, manufacturers plow in "just enough money so that the product survives for three years." After that, the manufacturer's guarantee period expires and a new generation gadget is rolled out on the market, he says.

A global problem

An excavator loads trucks with rare earth
Rare earth minerals used in electronic gadgets are expensive and difficult to extractImage: picture alliance / dpa

However, the increasingly shorter life cycles, especially of electronic gadgets, do not just put a dent in consumer wallets. They also lead to an increased demand for raw materials.

Electronic parts need metals such as gold, silver, copper and rare earths that are very expensive. The production is energy-intensive and often takes a heavy toll on the environment since it involves toxic materials. Obsolete appliances are often exported to developing nations where they clog up landfill sites.

In order to get to the precious metals in the electronic waste, the gadgets are often burned. That, in turn, releases huge amounts of highly toxic fumes that are a real health hazard to people handling the waste.

'Damaging to all'

But economist Enste pointed out that companies alone aren't to blame for the surplus waste. In the end, "there's always the consumer," he said. And many people apparently "want to always have the latest stuff. They want to keep up with trends."

Both Schridde and Enste say many consumers are driven by "cheap is cool" thinking. The demand for cheap products leads to growing pressure on manufacturers and their supplies, Enste said.

This results in manufacturers cutting corners during the production process, for instance, by using a cheap, flimsy plastic part, instead of a more expensive one made of metal that has a longer life.

Dominik Enste
Enste says it's ultimately up to the customer to decide which product to buyImage: cc-by-sa

A basic business tenet says that high demand fuels production, increased production encourages economic growth and strong economic growth leads to more prosperity, but there needs to be more recycling and a better use of resources.

The power of the consumer

Enste, who also heads the "Academy for Economics with Integrity," is "optimistic that we can change some things."

The market economy doesn't only make possible a system that in the case of planned obsolescence, creates global problems. It also has an antidote to it – the power of the customer. Every consumer can "buy products which he thinks suit him best."

Enste said sustainability must play a bigger role when it comes to opting for a product. That includes information about the production conditions, energy consumption and the recycling of products.

Equipped with this information, the customer can then make a qualified decision about "whether he prefers to buy two products in five years or one that lasts for five years," Enste said.

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