Technology has come a long way since the days when the wheel was the biggest invention by mankind. You now walk around flaunting the latest i-phone and listening to i-pods , while taking an electric train to work. We are always surrounded by a horde of devices and machines that have been developed to make our life more convenient and more enjoyable. It is a two way deal, we buy the products from the companies as per our convenience and mood, and the companies make money by feeding of the consumerist culture that is so entrenched in society today. What a lot of us may not know however is that, the technology exists to make the product life far longer than it actually is right now. Planned obsolescence or built-in obsolescence in industrial design is the policy of deliberately designing and building a product with a shortened life, so that it will become obsolete after a certain period of time. There are various reasons for doing this, although all the reasons favor the company and not the consumer. By doing this, the customer is forced to buy a new product from the same company or from the competition, which might also employ planned obsolescence as a business strategy. It also helps the company to reduce product support costs.
This might be achieved in various ways. Lets take the example of a printer. There may be a built-in chip inside the printer which lets the printer print up-to 20,000 copies, but displays an internal error the moment the 20,001st copy is sent to be print. The company then charges the operator for 'fixing' the printer. To take another example, the ever increasing life expectancy of light bulbs frightened bulb manufacturers. It would stem demand. Demand and growth are key aspects of our modern capitalist system. Demand and growth are dependent on our needs or perceived needs. The light bulb is a simple product with little need for newer models. Therefore the bulb companies formed a cartel and agreed to limit the life of bulb to 1000 hours. With this they secured the need that frove their business forward.
One of the main issues with this strategy as far as environmental issues are concerned is that, far more toxic electronic waste is generated than otherwise would have been. Electronic waste is one of the fastest growing sources of waste according to the UNEP. And most of this electronic waste is generated in the developed world and dumped on developing countries like India to be recycled. Some of this waste is actually in working order and is sold cheaply to those in need and with meager resources. But most of it is pure rubbish. Most of the waste recycling facilities in developing countries do not observe the latest regulations norms on pollution control. Many a times, this waste is simply burned to extract metals from it, hence releasing poisonous greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Looking at the other end of the spectrum, in order to make increased productions of various good, rather than just repairing them, more natural resources have to be mined, which put a further burden on the feeble nature of our ecological systems besides contributing to pollution levels in a huge way.
This cycle needs to be broken, and to do so all the incentives for planned obsolescence need to be removed. For example, taxing carbon could be something worth looking into where the companies could be made more responsible for the amount of goods they produce. The cost will be passed on to the consumer but the customer will at least start paying more attention to the life duration of a purchased product. Setting standards is also an effective way to make quality products. Japan's laws on energy efficient standards can act as a model to the world in this regard. Another step to resist the effects of planned obsolescence is within our powers to put into effect. Responsible citizens could put up e-waste collection centers around their locality where residents may drop off old and dysfunctional electronic items which would then be disassembled for finding reusable components which could be then be sold to willing customers for a bargain who would then use these parts to repair their own gadgets. The revenue thus generated could be used to support such a system. And waste production can drastically fall if such a step is taken up seriously.
Some might argue that planned obsolescence fuels the economy and drives innovation, but to them I'd say that planned obsolescence is only a good idea in a planet with unlimited resources, which the Earth is definitely not. We can't support this policy purely for reasons of growth as a huge damage is dealt to the consumer and especially to the planet.