The Ethics of Planned Obsolescence

The Ethics of Planned Obsolescence

  • AuthorKaren Dybis
  • Published Friday, November 30th, 2012
  • Comments0

For gadget lovers, there is nothing as tempting as the newest version of the high-tech do-dad of the moment. For the rest of us, there is nothing as annoying as the latest update to a product we probably never fully understood or utilized to its true potential.

And with every update, there is the need to improve the accoutrements – the case, the earphones, the external keyboard, the car adapter. The frustration—in addition to the cost— begs the question: What moral code, if any, do companies follow when they create products that change so frequently? And are there any ethical standards for the product designers who craft our misery?

The answer, according to a sampling of business owners and product designers, is as complicated as the smartphones we all carry in our pockets these days. Especially within the realm of electronics, things change rapidly through natural progression of the creative process, the needs of the marketplace and customer demand. Fashion, be it clothing or the kind of technology we use, is by its nature fast and fickle, always seeking something new or different.

Yet there is a universal agreement that the highest consideration should be given to the needs of the user, the community, society in general and the environment in particular. Creating a never-ending flow of new products may temporarily state the human animal in its endless thirst for amusement. But it curses us as well, creating waste without much if any thought to where it ends up. And without some demand for sustainable products, manufacturers and thereby designers will never step up to do what is right for many rather than what is convenient for a few.

The issue is particularly notable with the changes in the iPhone. The latest iteration, the iPhone 5, had so many changes and improvements that upgrading became even more tempting. For example, the 5 has a much larger screen than its little sister, the 4S. It has a better camera and video capabilities. It has faster data speed. And it has new earbuds and a dock connector, and is a smaller and more flexible version, according to the company.

So even if you felt satisfied with your previous phone and did not want to replace it, it is challenging to avoid upgrading if you need to change your contract or provider. And it is hard to skip a vastly superior product, like the updated earbuds, because they are now designed to fit better in your ear and give you higher-quality sound.

Not to state the obvious, but it is clear that maintaining a product over time is not a priority within the electronics industry, experts note.

“Electronics are challenging because they are inherently obsolete from the moment they’re being shipped,” noted Thomas J. Newhouse. Newhouse has been designing furniture, lighting and other products as the owner and principal of an industrial design consulting firm in Western Michigan for more than 30 years.

Newhouse’s specialty is design that considers its environmental footprint or sustainability from its inception. He has followed this philosophy with a passion, trying to create durable products in a largely throw-away society. Based on these beliefs, Newhouse is quick to say that he would not want to design electronics because of the so-called planned obsolescence that defines the industry.

To him, the thought process of coming up with a gadget such as an iPhone 5 or 6 or beyond is flawed from the start, as companies including Apple fail to think about what happens to everything that came before when the new model is released.

“They’re not well-thought out in a cradle-to-cradle manner, so they’re unlikely to be recycled,” Newhouse said. “There should be a well-developed ‘take-back’ program or incentives to recycle when you upgrade. That’s the manufacturer’s responsibility” and the designers by proxy.

There are many ways to reduce or eliminate a product’s environmental impact beyond recycling, Newhouse argues. To use the iPhone 5 example, Apple’s designers and companies should have thought about how to integrate previous products into the new design. By enlarging the new phone, it causes every owner to shed their old product and related gear without a second thought. Those who seek to live “green” have no choice, and a whole lot more plastic ends up in the garbage heap.

Working within the apparel and accessory industry gives Debbie Thelen Miller a slightly different viewpoint. Miller is the inventor of Hugrz Boot Wraps, a product that allows people to change the look of their existing boots by adding her product over the top.

Miller started the business as a way to keep her feet warm during her child’s hockey practices and games. As a female and as a savvy business owner, Miller knows that a portion of her designs have to be new and original to garner new customers. Yet she also has to offer standard or classic designs year over year, with the goal being not to change so rapidly that she alienates those who prefer a traditional or conservative look. Others may want to repurchase a look they previously liked or owned.

“There are things that are classic, like the Fair Isle pattern. That is something that is never going to go out of style,” Miller said. “We’ve tried to work with what is the American way. We’re always looking for something bigger and better by offering core products that are timeless and integrating trends to keep the look fresh.”

Designers face a bevy of issues when they sit down to create a new product, Miller said. Chief among them is the balance between cost and perceived value. This has been key to her product, largely because people may have spent hundreds of dollars on their boots: they can update their look with a Hugz rather than going out and buying another equally expensive pair.

“You want to create a product that has a value to it and can justify the pricing. A lot of disposable products are just that: you don’t want to spend the money on them because they’re not going to last,” Miller said. “So it is harder to justify a higher price tag to the consumer, and that ultimately may affect whether you’re able to stay in business long term.”

Retail is a tricky thing. You don’t want to keep everything the same forever; that would prevent people from having to buy replacement or new items at the speed needed to sustain a serious enterprise.

Sadly, consumers may have no choice within some arenas, such as computers or smartphones. Recently, I had a computer-repair person visit my home to see if his team of experts could update or upgrade my desktop computer. The goal was to extend its life, as it was only five years old. To me, it was a fairly new piece of equipment.

Right away, you could tell it was not going to be a pleasant conversation. The repairman was nice enough, but he told me bluntly that my computer was junk. He offered to help me pick it up and toss it out of my second-story office window, because that probably would be the kindest thing to do in its infirm state.

In the end, my family chose not to upgrade the desktop by making some easy repairs. Instead, we purchased a new laptop. The desktop will be recycled to the best of our ability. But when you think about the fact that we also have furniture, dishes and even some clothing that is older than Justin Bieber (and all of it is still going strong) it seems a huge waste to junk something that is only five years old.

If you have ever seen the children’s movie, “Wall-e,” you know what the possible outcome is to our excessive consumerism: It is world full of trash where cleaning up after our disposable society has become so burdensome that we must flee our planet. This might be worst-case scenario, but it doesn’t feel so far from the truth.

We are in a constant state of rush these days, whether it is in our personal or professional lives. We have access to so much information and so many products. We are blessed beyond measure in the United States, and it is amazing to have so many options. But we face a huge moral dilemma with products like the iPhone and others: do we upgrade because we want to or do we limp along with older technology because it is the “right” thing to do?

Karen Dybis is a Detroit-based freelance writer who has blogged for Time magazine, worked the business desk for The Detroit News and jumped on breaking stories for publications including City’s Best, Corp! magazine and Agence France-Presse newswire.


Leave a Reply