Bursting the Bubble

Combating Planned Obsolescence – The Opportunity For Europe?

25 September 2013 | by

There was some big news in the tech world during the past weeks. The one I’d like to refer to is the Nokia mobile phone unit, taken over by Microsoft. Not that I’m very thrilled with that event, but I am not as opposed as the Finns who reportedly became quite depressed. When it comes to me, I couldn’t be less bothered, perhaps odd for a person loyal to their mobile phones for a good decade.

However, the takeover coincided with a weird phenomenon that occurred to my, yet another, Nokia phone. The device, which has been serving me well throughout the last two years, has suddenly lost more than a half of its battery life. In less than a week, the fully charged battery, thus far enough for at least three days of careful usage, started to run flat in less than a day and now needs to be recharged every evening.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, as all devices become worn out over time. But incidentally, it happened just a few weeks after the warranty period expired. This is only one of the things telling me that, in fact, it wasn’t a coincidence at all.

It may just be my own conspiracy theory, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my phone was deliberately designed to breakdown at a certain point of time. Is it credible, that the company, which had released a phone with a 38-days battery life two years ago wasn’t even capable of producing a battery that wouldn’t become practically useless after two years of moderate usage?

The practice of making products so that they last shorter and force you to constantly buy new ones has been utilized by many manufacturers and is called ‘planned obsolescence’.

Of course, planned obsolescence is not the kind of thing producers want to boast about. They usually try to keep it concealed from the customers in a more or less successful way. Sometimes though, they are surprisingly frank about it and I have a story to exemplify that. Be it my bad luck or not, it also happened to me this year.

A few months ago, the laptop I was using for the last couple of years, produced by the company known for a fruit-shaped logo on its products, refused to obey my commands and eventually broke down. It happened in a similarly suspicious manner (the investigation is underway), and I was forced to replace it with a new one.

You can call me a muttonhead, but I decided to go for a laptop of the same brand, being too scared of the need to convert to another operating system and too mesmerized with the videos peddling all those convenient tricks I never used. I also thought that, despite my previous laptop being fairly useless at that point, I could make use of some of the accessories I had bought with it.

How naive of me! At the first occasion, when I wanted to display some photos from the brand new laptop and tried to plug the beamer cable in it; I decided to use the nicely designed adapter I used for the previous laptop. Yes, you guessed correctly – it didn’t fit.

Quite appalled that this kind of incompatibility can occur among the products only different in that they are from two (consecutive) generations, I went to the producer’s website and read the whole list of available adapters. Putting it mildly, I wasn’t pleased to find my adapter just below that list, in a box labelled as “Legacy adapters”.

Legacy adapters. What an elegant way to call it a pile of useless electric crap. This phrase, in its deceitful wording, draws together the entire nature of the fact that millions of electronic devices are continuously pushed away from the market just in order to force the muttonheads like me to spend just a bit more cash on a new, re-designed piece of electric cable.

As a result, once you buy a new, innovative gadget, you no longer expect it to last more than until the new one is released. Once it is, the battery in your device will swell and explode, the display will black out. If by some miracle none of the programmed technical failures occurs, the producer will make sure that the next software update will be incompatible, causing your device to crash every split second and transforming your smartphone into a ‘legacy smartphone’ in less than a season.

Every year, millions of products such as furniture, car tyres as well as fully operational electronic devices are thrown away to the scrapyard of industrial innovation at the expense of the consumers and of the environment.

The reason why I tell you these stories in an EU-oriented website is that they inspired me to think of a way to alter this process. Couldn’t the European Commission take care of that, just as it kindly did take care of the roaming charges?

I’m not asking because I believe that any regulation or action plan could effectively address this issue and strike it to the core. I do it because I already know that the EU officials are aware of the problem and believe that there is a way to solve it.

A few months ago, at a meeting with the EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik, I saw his enthusiasm towards an idea of the car tyre manufacturer Michelin, who developed a new scheme for merchandising its products. The idea is simple, revolutionary, and it has the potential to put an end to the vicious circle of planned obsolescence.

Imagine that, instead of buying a set of tyres for your car, you sign a contract with the tyre producer. In the contract, he obliges himself to provide you with tyres forever, in exchange for a fixed annual fee. You would get a new set of tyres any time the old ones become too fatigued.

It sounds a bit utopian, but this is precisely what Michelin offers to more than 250 thousand trucks in 20 European countries. The system of tyre leasing has become a way for the transportation companies to get what they need the most – predictability and optimized costs in their fleet management. If it works in cargo transport, why couldn’t it be spread to other sectors?

This way, it would be in the interest of the producer to make his products as durable as it is technically possible. The market forces, which are currently driving the products to be the poor quality they are, could be reversed to enforce the highest achievable product quality, without any harm to competition or consumer choice.

The environmental benefits are easy to predict. For instance, electronic devices would be designed to accommodate more powerful software rather than to become obsolete and be replaced every second year. Resource efficiency, currently the most neglected part of the business, would become the main field where companies could look for ways to increase their profits. Isn’t that a perfect way to pair economic growth with cutting resource consumption?

In addition, it’s not hard to figure out the benefits for the EU’s economy. The quality companies pushed out from the market by the avalanche of flimsy foreign products would regain its competitive position. The whole system would pave the way to bring jobs in manufacturing back to the EU. It would be a market-based way to implement the rising slogan of reindustrializing Europe and all of which would happen in a way that is environmentally sound.

If you want to learn about planned obsolescence in a much more entertaining way, watch the comedian David Mitchell talking the issue in the 4-minute video here.

For a more extensive analysis of the leasing model, read the article by MEP J. Merkies here

One Comment

  1. I would love to keep reading your posts
    Great Material!

What do you think?