Louise McEwanA remarkable light bulb hangs in a fire station in Livermore, Calif. The Centennial Light has been burning for over a million hours and almost continuously for 115 years. To say, “They don’t make ’em like they used to” of incandescent light bulbs is an understatement. The statement also applies to many manufactured items.

Prior to the 1920s, household light bulbs were made to last; a bulb could easily burn for more than 2,500 hours. In part, this was because electrical companies installed and maintained lighting in the homes of the elite. Long-lasting light bulbs saved companies money.

Things changed, however, when electricity spread to mass markets and companies wanted to increase profitability. One way to do that was to shorten the lifespan of the light bulb and pass the replacement costs on to the customer.

The Phoebus cartel, a group of light bulb manufacturers in North America and Europe, conspired to limit the lifespan of bulbs to 1,000 hours. It was no small feat to engineer a bulb that would consistently fail at 1,000 hours.

The purposely engineered-to-fail 1,000-hour bulb is one of the earliest examples of planned, or built in, obsolescence.

Planned obsolescence is a deliberate strategy to artificially limit the lifespan of an item. It occurs in three common ways:

  •  Obsolescence by design, as with the light bulb, occurs when design elements cause an item to fail within a specified time frame.
  • Obsolescence by non-compatibility is built into many tech devices. The device doesn’t exactly fail but becomes incompatible with newer software. Computers and tablets over five-years-old are a good example of this. While they continue to function reasonably well, their inability to receive software updates renders them obsolete.
  • A third way that manufacturers build in obsolescence is through desire: consumers want the newest version or model of an item that they already own. Obsolescence by desire can be as subtle as changing the colour of an appliance or as obvious as releasing a new smart phone.

From the perspective of consumer societies, planned obsolescence has some benefits. Consumer spending is an indicator of the health of an economy; planned obsolescence ensures that people will continue to spend on manufactured goods. In addition to spending, planned obsolescence drives innovation and improves the quality of some items. It creates jobs and keeps people employed.

But there are downsides. Planned obsolescence entices people to spend unnecessarily. It causes waste, leads to increased consumption and depletion of the earth’s resources, and degrades the environment.

“The footprint of annual global consumption exceeds the replacement rate of the planet’s resources by one and a half times,” wrote author J.B. MacKinnon in an article for the New Yorker.

Planned obsolescence is inconsistent with today’s environmental awareness and knowledge. While consumer society has adopted the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra, it has simultaneously embraced a culture of relentless consumption and waste. The proliferation of cheaply manufactured goods that quickly fall apart (obsolescence by design) and are the staple of busy dollar stores across the nation illustrates this point.

Planned obsolescence places the person and his wants at the centre of the universe. This leaves little space to honour the sanctity and interconnectedness of creation. To quote the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, who bemoaned the ills of industrialization, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;/Little we see in nature that is ours;/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

In 1927, Paul Mazur, a banker with Lehman Brothers, said “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed.”

The powers that be have done their job well. We have taken Mazur’s lesson to heart and have become gluttons for things.

Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. 

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