Deceptive or Innovative: Is It Ethical For Products To Be Designed With Obsolescence In Mind?

Today’s blog looks at how the manufacture of some products has changed to be designed for short-term use, with the view they will be continuously upgraded after their expected shelf-life. This method of manufacture goes against the more traditional idea that products are manufactured with longevity in mind, with the view that product owners can repair and replace elements of the item over periods of time in accordance with wear and tear, as opposed to upgrading or replacing the products after a short period of time.

Image: Royalty-free.

This leads on to the idea of ‘planned obsolescence’, the theory that manufacturers design and build products to be irreparable and ultimately lead the consumer to purchase another later or updated version of the product. When I came across this theory, Apple immediately jumped into my head. As an example, in only ten years, Apple have gone from designing their iPhones with a headphone jack and an Apple 30-pin charger, to having a lightening port for charging and headphones, to completely wireless charging and wireless headphones, with the introduction of AirPods in 2016. Although it may seem a while ago since iPhone 3s were in popular circulation, it really is a relatively short period of time for so many products to become obsolete- what use is an old iPhone 3 charger now? How many of those 1 million people who bought the iPhone 3GS in its first week of sales still use it now? With Apple’s recent switch in product compatibility- making older headphones with an aux jack and old chargers incompatible with recent iPhone models- consumers are inevitably pushed towards replacing items in favour of newer products with compatible features.

Alongside the obvious environmental issue this presents, whereby the obsolescence of older products produces excess waste of perfectly functioning products, a moral and ethical issue is also presented. Is it ethical for consumers to continually upgrade to newer products while owning existing products which still function and have lots of life in them? However, I think the most important question here is if it is ever ethical for manufacturers to a) design products to have a short shelf life and b) make replacement parts either difficult or expensive to source or making electronic or technical features of the products impossible to access. With the heavy reliance on technology in today’s society for work and social purposes, it is a winning method for organisations like Apple to retain customers and encourage repeat purchases by employing planned obsolescence in manufacturing. This is, however, already starting to have a damning effect on the environment and the amount of electronic waste, which is notorious for its difficult disposal- it is estimated that 40 million tonnes of electronic waste is generated worldwide each year.

The headphones and charging lead in this image are now obsolete. Image: Royalty-free.

The case of Apple is rather lengthy- with Apple having been ordered to pay £85m in a court case in November 2020. This case came about after it was alleged that Apple slowed down older iPhone models in 2017 to preserve battery life, meanwhile critics argued Apple did this to encourage owners to upgrade their models. Therefore, it appears critics, and wider consumers, are becoming more aware of Apple’s use of planned obsolescence.

Alongside the mobile phone and technology industry, the automotive industry is another example, amongst many, of planned obsolescence. An article in Autocar magazine stated that cars are becoming more and more complex to repair, with body shops, training centres and individuals simply unable to keep up with the rapid changes in vehicle technology. Therefore, the increased cost associated with needing additional training or research to repair certain vehicles has caused insurance companies to write-off cars which are relatively young and repairable. Arguably, it is hard to tell whether this is deliberate planned obsolescence or whether technology is advancing at such a rapid rate that methods of repair are yet to be realised due to gaps in training. Do you think the introduction of more and more electronic elements in car manufacturing is a deliberate move to encourage repeat purchasing, and to an extent, control consumer behaviour, or do you think it is just simply the automotive industry moving rapidly with new technology?

Although today’s blog discussed the idea of planned obsolescence in relation to the technology and automotive industries, this is going on in other sectors and industries too. For example, if you have a hole in your jumper, would you get your needle and thread out to stitch it up, or would you throw it out and replace it with a similar product? This could arguably be influenced by fast fashion, which is a different argument entirely, however, it shares similarities with organisations that employ planned obsolescence, as manufacturers consciously design products to have a reduced or specific shelf life in order to encourage repeat purchasing. Using the examples of both cars and mobile phones, how often do you replace your car or phone? According to Autotrader, the average person keeps a car for 6 years- but with the popularity of lease schemes where cars are traded after 3-4 years, this figure could reduce further. In 2020, the average person kept their phone for 33.6 months.  

Car repairs are becoming more and more challenging. Image: Royalty-free.

This presents quite a shocking environmental issue, especially when consumers are made much more aware of the environmental consequences of other aspects of their lifestyles in today’s society, than they were only a short number of years ago. However, I believe there is a wider moral and ethical issue presented here, whereby manufacturers are blatantly disregarding the environmental and financial consequences of their actions in order to encourage customers to continue purchasing their products. This is by building their products with flaws so that consumers upgrade to their latest, and often more expensive, products. In a question of an organisation’s values, is it right for them to effectively be ‘selling themselves short’ by creating inferior or unsubstantial products in order to secure further purchases 2-3 years down the line? In doing so, these organisations risk their own reputation as producing good quality products. This then brings in the question of authenticity, and actually presents organisations like Apple as being deceptive to their most loyal customers- especially in light of the court case mentioned earlier. Therefore, in answer to my earlier question, this evidence suggests it is unethical for organisations to employ planned obsolescence in manufacturing.

As a final thought, is this simply an instance of a societal and cultural shift to a more throwaway society, with individuals being too busy or disinterested to fix items? Or, has the throwaway society been amplified by manufacturers’ conscious decision to make products harder to fix due to complicated technologies, expensive replacement parts and inaccessible repairs?

Thank you for reading- I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this!

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