Planned obsolescence: Exploring the issue

02-05-2016

Although no overarching definition of planned obsolescence exists, the term 'planned obsolescence' (of products or technology) is described as the intentional production of goods and services with short economic lives, stimulating consumers to repeat purchases too frequently. The incandescent light bulb with an engineered shorter lifespan (the Phoebus cartel case) is one example from the past of proven planned obsolescence. Data suggest that the median lifespans of certain categories of product have been shortening, and consumer organisations have drawn attention to more recent suspected cases of planned obsolescence in connection with washing machines, inkjet cartridges, electronic devices, etc. One Member State – France – recently introduced a definition of planned obsolescence into its legislation, making it a punishable offence. No specific EU rules mention planned obsolescence, but the subject ties in with EU legislation on ecodesign, waste, use of natural resources, consumer information and the new package from the European Commission on the circular economy. The main consumer concerns and problematic strategies associated with the issue are: design features that do not allow repair, upgradability or interoperability with other devices; the unavailability of spare parts and high repair costs; and marketing strategies pushing consumers to buy new, fashionable products and replace existing ones very quickly. Various ways to curb the practice of planned obsolescence have been proposed, not least a shift towards a culture that values product durability and sustainability.

Although no overarching definition of planned obsolescence exists, the term 'planned obsolescence' (of products or technology) is described as the intentional production of goods and services with short economic lives, stimulating consumers to repeat purchases too frequently. The incandescent light bulb with an engineered shorter lifespan (the Phoebus cartel case) is one example from the past of proven planned obsolescence. Data suggest that the median lifespans of certain categories of product have been shortening, and consumer organisations have drawn attention to more recent suspected cases of planned obsolescence in connection with washing machines, inkjet cartridges, electronic devices, etc. One Member State – France – recently introduced a definition of planned obsolescence into its legislation, making it a punishable offence. No specific EU rules mention planned obsolescence, but the subject ties in with EU legislation on ecodesign, waste, use of natural resources, consumer information and the new package from the European Commission on the circular economy. The main consumer concerns and problematic strategies associated with the issue are: design features that do not allow repair, upgradability or interoperability with other devices; the unavailability of spare parts and high repair costs; and marketing strategies pushing consumers to buy new, fashionable products and replace existing ones very quickly. Various ways to curb the practice of planned obsolescence have been proposed, not least a shift towards a culture that values product durability and sustainability.