Planned Obsolescence & Our Consumerist Economy

It was in 1932 when a real estate broker, Bernard London, self-published an essay called Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence. London may or may not have coined the phrase; yet, he has certainly been given the credit for verbalizing this particular economic strategy.  In a nutshell, London advocated for the government to mandate arbitrary life cycles on material goods. After a certain time frame a variety of products would be deemed “dead” and no longer of use, regardless of whether they were really useless or not. London’s strategy was founded on a few perceived truths. One, that our productive capacity and productive potential far exceeds our population’s general capacity to consume, second, that for a prosperous economy we must have a balance of production and consumption, and, third, that our natural resources which feed such a cycle are infinite.  During the Great Depression, he witnessed consumers holding on to their products longer than they normally would have for the simple fact that they had no money to replace them. Consumer’s lack of purchasing created a bottleneck in the factories, who were subsequently forced to let go of employees as a result of the lack of demand. This regressive cycle “not enough money, not enough people consuming, more people losing their jobs” made the Depression exponentially worse as time went on.  So, London suggested that once the good met its time limit the consumer would return the good to a government agency, receive money in return from the government, and then use the money to buy a replacement. Consumers would be forced to give up their material goods on a frequent basis and this would relieve the bottleneck in the factories and provide balance between production and consumers.

The United States did not implement London’s theory, and it is not known whether companies were directly influenced by his writings either. In fact, it can be argued that Planned Obsolescence has always been, London simply wanted to take it a step further and turn it into a government policy. There are a variety of examples that pepper the 20th Century–from the dawn of the lightbulb, to women’s nylons, to the first ipod. Companies have often withheld the best technology in favour of a product that might not last as long and might not work as well, but at the end of the day would make more money and maintain the long term growth of the company. I believe it would be helpful when contemplating the idea of Planned Obsolescence to see it, not through the gaze of a conspiracy theorist, but to see it as an understandable method of self-preservation. Planned Obsolescence can take the form of many guises. It can be intentional or just a result of technological advances. It could be your vehicle, that works just fine, but all of a sudden looks old and out of date compared to the new features and the different looks that the newer vehicles have. It could be a cheap blender that you got at a Big Box store that was built poorly and never meant to work well in the first place or last that long. It could be your dishwasher that broke down, but with the cost of repairs and service means that it makes more sense to buy a new one than to get the old one repaired. It could be your phone that you would like to replace because the newer ones have more gigabytes and a better camera. Regardless, of Planned Obsolescence or just plain obsolescence we are creating and destroying at a rate that has never been seen before, and although this frequent turnover helps us to maintain our balance between production and consumption we have now entered a time when we are running into the limits of our resources to feed such a cycle.

That is one point that London got wrong. Our resources are not infinite. London hoped that our process of continually creating and destroying material goods would mimic nature’s own ability to create and destroy. Yet, is that really what nature does? The difference between nature and our material goods is that nature truly works in a cycle, what is created and then destroyed is created again. Whereas, with our material goods, in most cases, we use nature’s finite resources to create, create, and create some more, but then what is created really isn’t ever destroyed. It is broken apart and some of it is reused, but most of it is hidden. Whether it be underground seeping through our environment or shipped across seas for different people who have less money and less rights to riffle through.  

The fact that those who promoted Planned Obsolescence eighty years ago started with the assumption that, first, nature’s resources were infinite and, second, that what they were proposing mimics nature is at the crux of our current economic crossroads. Although we can understand the practice and can appreciate the benefits that some of us have reaped from such a practice, we are now in an age where this continuous “catch and release” is clearly unsustainable. But what is one to do? Well, to realize that Planned Obsolescence exists to feed our consumerism and that consumerism is at the heart of our economy is essential. It is the one constant. It is why interest rates went down after the 2008 Financial Crisis and why George W Bush told us to go shopping after 9/11.

If we stopped shopping then all the cracks in our fragile economy would start to appear, but in order for us to truly move into the renewable age then we must create differently and act differently, and move beyond a consumerist economy. We cannot think in fear. London did not believe people would take his policy seriously because, quote, “for it is new, for it is hard for us to abandon our old notions and adjust ourselves to a new way of thinking.” Well, we should not make the same mistake. Imagine how your world would be different if you didn’t have to continually spend money on the same things. Imagine how our world would be different if we didn’t have to continue to work to make the same things. Would our lives be fuller and our knowledge greater? Would we be living with 100% Renewable Energy? Would we have already made it to Mars? To imagine beyond our current reality is necessary for our evolution and our continued success.