We’ve all been in this situation – you buy a new mobile phone, you are excited about the great new features and , you proudly present the new achievement to your friends – but the joy about the new device usually doesn’t last long. After just a few months, your smartphone’s battery life is already declining massively: in the morning you disconnect your smartphone from the power supply, at noon you find yourself desperately looking for a power outlet, as the battery indicator is tending towards zero (Kluczniok 2016). Since repairing the battery or replacing it is mostly not possible at all or involves very high costs, it is usually more convenient for consumers to buy a new device instead of repairing the old one. Not really sustainable, is it?
This phenomenon does not only occur with smartphones – no, many other electronic devices are also affected. The phenomenon also has a name – planned obsolescence. Time and again there are rumors that manufacturers are incorporating weaknesses in products in order to boost the demand for new devices. But what is it about the planned obsolescence?
Planned obsolescence – conspiracy theory or fact?
Planned obsolescence, i.e. artificial product aging, is the term used when a device loses its function at an early stage, for example shortly after the warranty expires. Updates or other innovations can also mean that users are no longer satisfied with the functionality of the product and therefore want or must buy a new device. You, too, have certainly made experiences with planned obsolescence. There are different forms of this phenomenon:
- Material obsolescence: Some small parts of the product are less efficient than others and therefore break faster. Example: The battery in smartphones or laptops.
- Functional obsolescence: Requirements for a product change over time. Example: New software is too extensive for older mobile phones – they become unusable as a result.
- Psychological obsolescence: Improved technology and fashion trends make consumers want to buy a new device even though the old one still works. Example: New smartphone models from major manufacturers every year.
- Economic obsolescence: Often the repair of a defective device is not worthwhile because a new purchase is cheaper. Example: Permanently installed batteries or hard-to-replace graphics cards in laptops.
All these forms of planned obsolescence lead to consumers buying new products again and again and stimulating the economy with their consumer behaviour. Great for the economy – on the other hand really bad for mother nature. However, it must also be mentioned that the phenomenon of planned obsolescence has not been scientifically proven to this day. One major problem is that the burden of proof for a defect lies with the consumer. For this reason, manufacturers can usually pull their heads out of the noose and refer to age-related wear and tear (Materla 2018).
The way to a modern consumer and disposable society
With their behaviour, the manufacturers thus favour the path to a modern consumer and disposable society. But we can’t just put the blame on the manufacturer, since it is mainly the consumer behaviour that encourages producers to produce short-lived products. Our society is characterised by a disposable mentality – fast consumption, wasteful use of natural resources and environmental pollution are the order of the day. We are consuming without worrying about the consequences of our actions. We are constantly buying new things, replacing old equipment, throwing away tons of food – and the worst part is – it’s perfectly normal for us. This is also well illustrated by our purchasing behaviour towards televisions: In German households, CRT televisions ran for about ten to twelve years, with modern flat screens being replaced after five to six years. However, only a quarter of consumers buy a new device because the old one is broken. The remaining consumers replaced their device even though it was not necessary (Zühlke 2015). We should ask ourselves whether it is really necessary to buy a new smartphone every two years just because it has a new design or a slightly better camera. Do you really have to buy the new Playstation just because it has a new color? The answer is obvious – it’s definitely not necessary. Did you even think about the environment once? I admit it – I didn’t. So it’s not just the manufacturers who are responsible, but we consumers also need to change our behaviour in order to stop creating incentives for manufacturers to produce short-lived products (Schridde, Kreiss & Winzer o.J.).
Doing something good for the environment with durable products
We as consumers must therefore demand durable things and force companies to rethink. Resource efficiency only makes sense if durable products are also manufactured. The comparison between long-lived and short-lived notebooks illustrates this: Every year, a long-lived notebook produces around 25 kg less greenhouse gases than the short-lived version. The analysis shows comparable figures for televisions: A single long-life TV set produces almost 60 kg less greenhouse gases per year than a short-life TV set. Looking at the total sales figures, according to which just under 5.5 million notebooks and more than 8 million televisions were sold in Germany alone in 2014, the dimension of the total possible greenhouse gas savings with longer use becomes clear. It is therefore imperative to set minimum quality and durability requirements for the products, make them transparent and then check them. Manufacturers must change their minds and pursue other goals in view of the growing recycling society (Zühlke 2015).
Mountains full of electronic scrap and its consequences
Over 40 million tons of electronic scrap are generated worldwide every year. As already mentioned, most discarded appliances are not full defects, but damages that actually could have been repaired in just a few steps. Unfortunately, in Europe only 29.5% of e-waste is recycled. Especially alarming is the fact that 6% of electrical appliances end up in household waste. This corresponds to about 700,000 tons of waste per year. By proper disposal in 2014 about 300 tons of gold could have been recycled worldwide. The remainder (64.5%) of the electrical waste is exported and reused as second-hand goods in the recipient country. However, 15% of it is unusable and ends up in the garbage dump. Since most developing countries lack the necessary recycling machines, the products are dismantled and incinerated by hand. This leads to a large number of toxic chemicals, which are released into the respiratory tract via the air or into the groundwater via the soil. This is why the GreenCross organisation chose the Agbogbloshie waste dump in Ghana as the most contaminated site in the world in 2013. This means this place was even more contaminated than Chernobyl – a really disturbing fact (Schneider 2016).
Less is more!
Well, how can we counteract these mountains of electronic waste and our constant consumption? Actually, it’s quite simple:
- Borrow instead of buy
- Return devices – Dispose of electrical equipment correctly
- Repair your devices instead of throwing them away
- Buy sustainable products from recyclable materials
- Become aware of the consequences of the consumer society
- Only buy what you really need (Materla 2018)
Only if we change our consumer behaviour, we can counteract the planned obsolescence (Schridde, Kreiss & Winzer o.J.). It’s only a small step – but a step in the right direction (Buschenlange 2013)!
Buschenlange, H., 2013. Konsumgesellschaft und Wege zur Nachhaltigkeit: Perspektiven auf Konsum, geplante Obsoleszenz und Abfallproblematik, Norderstedt: Diplomica Verlag GmbH.
Kluczniok, J., 2016. Smartphone-Akku wird schnell leer: Das sind die Gründe. Netzwelt, 23.09.2016. Online: https://www.netzwelt.de/smartphone-erste-hilfe/159533-smartphone-akku-schnell-leer-gruende.html (15.12.2018)
Materla, V., 2018. Künstliche Produktealterung. Geplante Obsoleszenz: Das steckt dahinter. Focus, 18.01.2018. Online: https://www.focus.de/finanzen/praxistipps/geplante-obsoleszenz-das-steckt-dahinter_id_8318311.html (15.12.2018)
Schneider, R., 2016. E-Waste: Was passiert mit unserem Elektroschrott? Digitec, 13.09.2016. Online: https://www.digitec.ch/de/page/e-waste-was-passiert-mit-unserem-elektroschrott-2210 (15.12.2018)
Schridde, S., Kreiss, Ch. & Winzer, J., o.J. Geplante Obsoleszenz. Berlin: ARGE REGION. Online: http://www.murks-nein-danke.de/blog/download/Studie-Obsoleszenz-aktualisiert.pdf (15.12.2018)
Zühlke, K., 2015. Wir sind eine Wegwerfgesellschaft. Markt&Technik, 27.10.2015. Online: https://www.elektroniknet.de/markt-technik/elektronikfertigung/wir-sind-eine-wegwerfgesellschaft-124417.html (15.12.2018)