what is planned obsolescence ?

Obsolescence is the condition for a product of no longer being used or useful. It’s a clear concept, obsolete product is a product that is out of date, or may no longer be used.

But planned obsolescence remains an unclear and controversial concept: planned obsolescence is the policy of designing a product with a limited lifetime. This is a practice which is largely developed in the field of new technologies ( fashion, small technological developments etc.)

planned obsolescence

Planned obsolescence contributes to the continuous renewal of products which is a key factor of economic growth in the developed western countries. Brooks Stevens, an american industrial designer defined it as “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary”.

There are different types of planned obsolescence:

Functional obsolescence : A functional obsolescence is the design of products including an expected average lifetime.

Technological obsolescence : Technological obsolescence generally occurs when a new product replace an older version.

Style obsolescence : Style obsolescence is when a product is no longer desirable because it is not fashion anymore.

Notification obsolescence : the product itself informs the consumer of the need to buy a new one.

Systemic obsolescence : Systemic obsolescence is when the product can no longer be maintained, and/or the manufacturer stops supporting it.


These are the main forms of planned obsolescence. They can be combined. Ecological obsolescence is a new form of obsolescence which aims to replace products still working with new products expected to be more environmentally friendly. But if a new car consumes less than an old car, the energy and materials required by the construction of a car pollute a lot. It is much more environmentally efficient to use an old vehicle until the end of its lifetime than buying a new one.

The planned obsolescence has several different impacts. The most obvious is the environmental impact. Planned obsolescence depletes the planet’s resources. Some of the metals used in new technologies could disappear within a few years. The more we need to manufacture, the more energy and water we use. Electronic equipments consume a lot of water for their manufacture.

Another effect of planned obsolescence is the accumulation of waste. If a product is made to fail, it usually gets thrown away and ends up contributing to the ever-growing worldwide waste. Electronic waste is one of the fastest growing sources of waste. Western countries have found a place to put its electronic waste though: the developing world. Then the waste is recycled by the poor to remove the precious metals.

Finally, planned obsolescence also creates a wrong mentality: most corporations see planned obsolescence as a moneymaking business and not as an environmental issue and the consumers are accepting that by buying products from these big corporations.

There is no legislation on planned obsolescence. But some standards may limit the effects of planned obsolescence. For instance, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in the United States, issued new durability standards for products. In Europe, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive forces companies to responsibly recycle electronics. The European Economic and Social Committee adopted an opinion on sentencing practices planned obsolescence, but it is only an opinion. And during this time, boats still drop many electronic waste in the Thirld World.


Some companies are committed to the fight against planned obsolescence (as Dyson with its famous vacuum cleaners) but consumer’s education may be the only way to resist planned obsolescence. Consumers must be aware that planned obsolescence actually exists. There are many things the consumer can do to reduce the impacts of planned obsolescence. People need to search for products that are built to last, buy products that are made of recycled material, use the product until it is completely unusable, and buy a new item when it is absolutely necessary.

Once consumers are aware of planned obsolescence, they can better use the market to buy more efficient products. This will benefit consumers, responsible businesses, and the environment.


Sources :
PERC, “Planned Obsolescence: The Good and the Bad”, Addison Del Mastro
The New York Times, “Planned Obsolescence, as Myth or Reality”, Catherine Rampell, october 31, 2013
The Economist, “Planned obsolescence”, March 23, 2009

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