business design waste

Three forms of obsolescence

One of the recurring themes of anti-consumerism is planned obsolescence – the idea that many goods are designed with a limited life. They’re designed to work for a certain amount of time and then break, or be replaced by an upgraded model. In some discussions, the implication is that companies are being underhand and selling goods that they know could last longer. On the other hand, if everything was made to last for decades, technological progress would move at a glacial pace.

To clarify, it helps to think about the different forms of obsolescence. In his book The Waste Makers, Vance Packard describes three forms:

  • Obsolescence of function is when a new product or technology comes along that makes the old one inferior.
  • Obsolescence of quality describes a product that falls out of use because it has worn down or broken.
  • Obsolescence of desirability happens when something is rendered old hat by the arrival of newer and more exciting options.

These are helpful distinctions, and they all operate in slightly different ways. By and large, the first suggests a step forward in technology. That usually makes this form of obsolescence a positive one, because a better option is available. It is open to abuse however, if companies hold back technologies in order to sell more units. I find it remarkable that the iPad first went on sale in 2010, but has had 5 different generations already. Proud owners of a iPad 3 only had seven months to enjoy it before Apple announced its successor. The company clearly knows that it will sell more iPads by releasing incremental improvements every year rather than breaking genuinely new ground every couple of years. No doubt Apple enthusiasts would disagree.

Obsolescence of quality is the one that people get upset about if it’s planned. It suggests that companies have worked out how long they need to make something last in order for people not to feel short changed. It’s hard to know how often people actually sit down and discuss those things explicitly, but Packard’s book has lots of examples of this from the 1950s, where it was recognised that obsolescence was a key strategy in increasing consumption and economic growth. Some things could certainly last longer than they do – see the famous Centennial light bulb, still burning away 110 years after it was first fitted. Then again, some things are quite rightly designed to decline in quality in specific ways. Tyres, for example, have tread wear indicators and it would be unsafe to ignore them.

The third type of obsolescence is probably the most common, depending on the industry. It’s the main driving force of the fashion industry. Very few people are inventing new or better forms of clothing. It’s just that trends in colour, pattern and style change and make older ones less interesting, or even undesirable. Most industries don’t work as fast as fashion does, but mobile phones and gadgets are pretty close. Lots of other industries would love to have that kind of turnaround, and sometimes adopt the language of fashion to suggest that we ought to think of their goods that way. (Here’s Fiat, for example, talking about it’s ‘wardrobe’) Once again, you can’t argue that tastes shouldn’t ever change. There’s got to be room for new ideas and artistic expression.

We live in a throwaway culture, and one that values large quantities of cheap goods over fewer things and better quality. The material throughput of our economy is unsustainable, and obsolescence is one of the main driving forces of that overconsumption. But there are useful and not so useful forms of obsolescence. It’s up to us to be alert to the obsolescence that represents progress, and the obsolesence which just represents waste.

2 comments

  1. I think it unlikely that Apple held back technology on the ipad 3. More likely was that pressure for competitors meant they needed a new product and the extras seen in the ipad 4 weren’t ready. So they launched a stop gap.

    1. Quite possible, in which case it looks more like the third variety of obsolescence. The release of brightly coloured iPhones would also fall into that category.

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