The saying, “They don’t make them like they used to,” thoroughly fits with the Centennial Light. 115 years after someone turned it on for the first time, this amazing record-breaking light bulb is still shining in a fire station in Livermore, California. If incandescent light bulbs manufactured using 19th century technology can last for so long, why not contemporary 20th century or even 21st century light bulbs?
The Centennial Light is often regarded as evidence of the so-called sinister business strategy of 'planned obsolescence'. Many people believe that light bulbs and various other technologies can easily last for decades, but the introduction of artificial life allows companies to obtain repeat sales and therefore higher profits. Others disregard planned obsolescence as a 'cosmpirary theory'.
So, is this more than just a conspiracy theory? Does planned obsolescence really exist?
What does ‘Obsolescence’ mean?
Onsolescence is the process of becoming outdated or obsolete and no longer in use. ‘Obsolescence’ comes from the word ‘obsolete'. When something is obsolete, it is no longer relevant and no longer used; it is outdated. The most widely recognized route for an item to become obsolete is for it to be supplanted by something new, and this is where planned obsolescence comes in.
What is ‘Planned Obsolescence’?
It is also called ‘built-in obsolescence’ or ‘premature obsolescence’.
In simple terms, this is a top-notch targeting strategies for planning or designing a product that has an artificially limited-service life or a purposeful fragile design to become obsolete after a certain pre-determined period of time. The product is designed in such a way that after a period of time, its functional efficiency will decrease or it will suddenly stop working, or it may be perceived as unfashionable.
Examples: Fast fashion, low-quality clothes; slowed down phones/gadgets, unrepairable consumer electronics; short-lasting light bulbs; protected ink cartridges; marginally modified textbooks; yearly updates on cars.
How is it a problem?
Planned obsolescence limits the product’s lifespan of limited duration and usually forces consumers to upgrade to the more expensive Apple iPhone best model. In many cases, the product gradually disappears after the warranty period. Planned elimination refers to the use of various strategies to make the product appear undesirable, useless, and unwanted. Companies can do this in a variety of ways, and this is one of the cornerstones of profitability for many companies.
It contributes to a culture of wastefulness by propagating a “purchase new and purchase frequently” attitude and restricting customer autonomy to keep products longer by hard-wiring a ‘self-destruct’ button in products. Another repercussion of this culture is social anxiety among individuals for not keeping up with the ‘current trend’. Even after following this attitude the misery of the customers caused by this money-wasting technique often leads to further issues, that include incurring unnecessary debt, the problem of constantly having to transfer data in case of gadgets, etc. In a world with limited resources for manufacturing these products and storing the subsequent waste, is in itself an issue. In such a scenario, planned obsolescence only makes it worse, particularly in terms of environmental law, sustainability and social and ecological responsibilities of cosumers and businesses.
The Legality of Planned Obsolescence in Different Jurisdictions
The first country in the world to ban this practice was France (in 2015). Punishement includes upto 2-year imprisonment and €300,000 fine and up to 5% of the annual average turnover.
In the EU there are no specific laws for the same. However, under the Sale of Consumer Goods and Associated Guarantees Directive (Directive 1999/44/EC), EU consumers are entitled to repair or replacement of goods that are not fit for purpose or do not match the description given by the seller.
In the United States, the Consumer Product Safety Commission does have the power to issue durability standards if it chooses to exercise them. There is no such standard in India.
There is no specific remedy for Planned obsolescence in India but an individual can file a claim under the Consumer Protection act.
Section 2(1)(f) of the Indian Consumer Protection Act defines the term ‘defect’ broadly as “any fault, imperfection or shortcoming in the quality, quantity, potency, purity or standard which is required to be maintained by or under . . . under any contract, express or implied . . . in relation to any goods.”
The Indian Consumer Protection Act, 1986, has added a ‘reasonable expectation’ criterion in the sense that physical defects would have to be assumed in cases in which a reasonable purchaser would not have entered a contract if the true product quality would have been known by the purchaser (the Delhi High Court, highest high court in India in Jaswant Rai v. Abnash Kaur on Oct. 3, 1973, and the Bombay High Court in Lallubhai Rupchand v. Mohanlal Sakarchand on Jan. 22, 1934).
Apple & Planned Obsolescence Lawsuit
150,000 iPhone 6, 6 Plus, 6s Plus, 7, 7 Plus, and SE owners sued Apple, the largest companies in the world over the same "iPhone Slowdown" issue that Apple has been battling since 2017 in Chile.
Apple in 2017 released iOS 10.2.1 with a feature that throttled the performance of older iPhones with degrading batteries to prevent device shutdowns at peak usage times. Apple did not make it clear that mitigating these shutdowns would require device performance to be scaled back, which led to significant consumer upset and a series of lawsuits that Apple is still dealing with today.
Apple will pay $3.4 million in Chile to settle a lawsuit that accused the Best Companies in Cupertino of programming a limited lifespan into some of its products to force consumers to upgrade.
Apple has faced similar lawsuits in Belgium, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. Apple has already settled a class-action lawsuit in the United States, shelling out between $310 and $500 million, and a state-led investigation into throttling that cost it $113 million.
Having legislation ending planned obsolescence altogether is appealing from a consumer viewpoint, as far as alleviating its negative social and ecological effects are concerned. Sustainable adaptation (green technology and better recycling framework) may prevail in viability. However, planned obsolescence is not only a business strategy. It has now become a way of life to which numerous buyers have subscribed. Regardless of whether items were devised to last for long, social driving forces like “perceived technological obsolescence, societal position, and superficial damage” will force buyers to keep on purchasing the latest and the best (as promoted by businesses and the society). In view of this, legislations alone may not be adequate. Legislations should be supplemented with different methodologies such as educating consumers on the practice of planned obsolescence, sustainable living, repairing and recycling, circular economy, etc.