Planned Obsolescence: An Obsolete Form of Production

Media studies professor Justin Lewis argues that the notion of consumer capitalism is no longer an adequate vehicle for human progress (Lewis 2013, 2). Consumer capitalism revolves around the suggestion that human lives improve “in proportion to the accumulation of consumer goods” (Lewis 2013, 4). However, there are several reasons why this belief is contradictory. For example, for the manufacturing of media technology many toxic materials are needed, often excavated in developing countries. Afterwards, the devices are assembled in factories mainly in Asia under questionable human and environmental conditions. In August of this year, problems with low wages and overtime pressure in Chinese factories became apparent with two deaths related to Foxconn, the technology group that supplies among others to Apple (Dou 2016). However, not only the production of media technology poses problems. Economists argue that according to the “diminishing marginal utility of goods and services” the [emotional] value of goods decreases with every purchase (Lewis 2013, 5). As a result, electronics become easily disposable. In 2013, in the United Kingdom alone 1.1 million tons of domestic electronic products were thrown away, and these numbers are expected to double in the forthcoming decade (Chapman 2009, 29). In short, our current economy depends on profits for products that only causes environmental and social problems.

According to Lewis, the structure of the contemporary creative industries is one of the reasons these contradictions are not widely recognised and addressed by the mainstream public sphere. This structure consists of an interaction between built-in mechanisms of obsolescence, the profit-model based on advertisement revenues and the evolution of journalism into ‘disposable news’ (Lewis 2013, 2). In this blog we will discuss the problem of obsolescence and try to find possible solutions by combining federal and EU policies, industry solutions and initiatives to stimulate consumer awareness.

The first step towards a more sustainable way of production and consumption within the media and communications industries, whereby built-in obsolescence would become obsolete, is conducting a policy that involves the whole production chain of a given product. In 2013 the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) called for a zero-tolerance policy on planned obsolescence. They mentioned multiple reasons, all related to overconsumption, to motivate their actions: firstly, because consumer goods become obsolete so fast, people start to purchase items on credit, which leads to high levels of debt; secondly, the great amounts of toxic waste and the disposal and (illegal) export to developing countries increases public health risks; thirdly, as people become more informed about planned obsolescence concerning the goods they buy, their level of trust in the industries decreases; lastly, companies could learn to stand out from their competition when they receive subsidies from the EU to incorporate sustainability within their production practices.

The EESC has organised a European Round Table in 2014 on this topic of planned obsolescence. Many parties were involved in this round table debate: the industry sector, the distribution sector, the finance sector, the consumer associations and trade unions, and EU citizens. The goal of the round table was to inform consumers in better ways about the lifespan of the goods they buy, so they can make improved purchasing decisions. Topics that were addressed are the opinion of consumers towards built-in obsolescence and the impact of the former on the latter, results of campaigns directed towards consumer awareness raising, and the labelling of products whereby information on their lifespans is included. The EESC would ideally like to see a labelling system whereby a product would have a guaranteed minimum lifespan. The Committee would also like companies to pay for recycling costs if their products have a lifespan of less than five years. To make it easier to repair goods, a member of the EESC suggested that companies should supply replacement parts for products, for example.

However, policy regulated by governmental bodies will not be enough to tackle the problem of obsolescence. Professor of Sustainable Design Jonathan Chapman argues that the current crisis is a behavioural problem on the part of the consumers (Chapman 2009, 29). Nowadays, obsolescence has become an integral part of our consumption patterns. Lewis calls this phenomenon hyperconsumerism; people do not only feel the need to surround themselves with new purchases, they constantly replace the goods they have as well (Lewis 8). Even if the lifespan of products is increased, designs and applications can get out of fashion. To tackle these problems, Chapman examined the characteristics of emotionally durable design. This six-point experiential framework consists of a unique personal history with the product in the form of a narrative, detachment because of low expectations, the obtaining of character on the surface through the aging process, attachment because of function or meaning, the excitement of exploring the product and the development of consciousness when the product is perceived as having a free will and character (Chapman 2009, 33). This framework can be translated to the public in the form of high-quality, customized products. An example of an industrial initiative is the Dutch Fairphone, a modular phone that is produced as fair as possible. The company states that the products are designed to last due to regular software updates and easily repairable mechanics (Fairphone). Modular phones stimulate emotional connection because owners have the opportunity to customize their phone and invest in the maintenance themselves. Especially customization as opposed to mass production is a way to counter hyperconsumerism; if the products are completely adapted to the user’s taste, they become unique and therefore less easily disposable.

Besides emotionally durable design, consumer awareness can be raised in other ways as well. This year, the book ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up’ from Japanese organising consultant Marie Kondo became a New York Times bestseller. Kondo’s philosophy is quite simple: only keep the things that give you joy. Respect your belongings and give them the attention they deserve (La Farge Summers). Kondo focuses on decluttering, but her message encourages changes in consumption as well. After all, readers are asked to constantly assess the result of their purchasing patterns. In this way, influencers like Marie Kondo can contribute to consumer awareness on the downsides of obsolescence and hyperconsumerism from a different perspective.

Having mentioned and explained these examples of discouraging overproduction and overconsumption to work towards more sustainable ways of producing and consuming, it must be stressed that overcoming these problems will be an extremely complicated task. Because the ways people produce and consume have been strongly ingrained within many industries, turning the tide calls for a devout collaboration between all different parties involved. Conducting policies on sustainability and encouraging the development of consumer awareness could serve as the first notable steps to be taken in this process of change and reform.

Literature

Chapman, Jonathan. ‘Design for (Emotional) Durability.’ Design Issues, 25. 4 (Autumn 2009), pp. 29-35.

Dou, Eva. “Deaths of Foxconn Employees Highlight Pressures Faced by China’s Factory Workers.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, Inc, August 21, 2016. Web. December 2 2016.

European Economic and Social Committee. “Planned obsolescence.” European Economic and Social Committee. European Union, October 17 2014. Web. December 2 2016.

European Economic and Social Committee. “The EESC calls for a total ban on planned obsolescence.” European Economic and Social Committee. European Union, October 17 2013. Web. December 2 2016.

Fairphone. “Fairphone 2.” Fairphone. Fairphone, 2016. Web December 3 2016.

Lewis, Justin. “The Dead-End of Consumerism: The Role of the Media and Cultural Industries.” Kelly Gates (ed.). The International Encyclopedia of Media Studies. Volume VI: Media Studies Futures. Blackwell Publishing, 2013.

Image: http://tuftsobserver.org/planned-obsolescence/

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