I just watched a documentary, The Light Bulb Conspiracy, that made me really sangry (that’s sad and angry. Clever hey, feel free to use it.:-) ). It was about how the world’s economic growth model deliberately incorporates obsolescence. So the basic idea is deliberately make things with either a short physical or desirability lifespan so that people have to buy things more often. When you think of it, it makes perfect sense, if you are a sociopathic arsehole. Actually, that’s not fair. It probably did make sense at the time when the idea was first flagged, during the great depression, to stimulate the world’s economies. But now that we know of the potential damage that continued economic growth will do the environment, it is considerably less justifiable. Btw, planned obsolescence isn’t a thing of conspiracy, it is an accepted practice that takes many forms. Some countries, like the UK, consider it real enough to have their Office of Fair Trade investigate that any product that continually fails soon after the warranty period expires.
Some of the examples they gave in the documentary would have been quite interesting if they weren’t so fucking infuriating! For example, when Dupont’s scientists came up with nylon it was so strong that they could tow a car with a pair of stockings and they would last a couple of years. So the scientists were told to go back and make it weaker. Just think about that the next time you get a run in your stockings, ladies, they don’t need to be that fragile.
Or the next time your printer suddenly stops working, it might well just be the chip a lot of printer have installed that shuts them down when a set number of pages has been reached, even thought there is nothing actually wrong with the printer. The manufacturers call it a protection chip. Btw, if you search the net you can find instructions for how to rest the chip if your printer has one.
And even well respected companies like Apple seem to be in on it. The original iPod was designed with a battery life of between 12-18 months but was advertised as having a battery life of the lifetime of the machine. They then made replacing them so difficult and expensive that they advised you just to replace the iPod, at around $500 a pop. This was eventually challenged in court and Apple settled. But in the meantime a third party industry had sprung up to provide battery replacement services to iPod owners. Funnily enough, subsequent iPod models had their batteries either welded or glued in. 🙂 And, as this article suggests, they seem to still be at it. The iPhone was the first mobile phone to come out with a battery that could not be easily replaced by the user.
Now, I’m not against buying stuff, though I do think that most of us already have too much, but I think that what we buy should at least last a decent amount of time. There is a book, called Natural Capitalism, that suggests that the average life of all consumer goods, or maybe it was all Christmas gifts (I can’t remember exactly) is about one year. Whichever one it is still makes for a pretty wasteful society. Compare this to the model used in the old East Germany, where, because they had limited access to natural resources, consumer goods had to be designed, by law, to have a minimum 25 years working life. Now this is probably a bit extreme, because I can’t imagine that those machines are particularly energy efficient and a market for new products probably drive innovations in this area. But, when you think about it, given the energy that goes into the production of a new, say, washing machine, one machine that lasts 25 years may still be over-all more efficient that building 5 machines over the same period. But I digress. As I was saying, 25 years is probably a bit extreme. But 1 year is definitely too short! Somewhere in between would be nice.
And just to show you it can be done, here is a link to a 60 watt light bulb that has been burning for 110 years! This is the reason for the name of the documentary. Apparently in the 1920’s a consortium of light bulb manufacturers got together and decided that light bulbs should be limited to a lifetime of 1000 hours, even though technology existed at that time to make light bulbs that lasted over 2500 hours. There is great article here that goes into the social and environmental impacts of planned obsolescence much better that I have here. Pop over and read it. But before you get too outraged by this bastardry 🙂 it is probably worth remembering that one of the most often used forms of planned obsolescence is Style Obsolescence, where we are ‘convinced’ to buy the latest and the greatest. So we are part of the problem too.