It's like clockwork. Your smartphone starts acting dumb right around the two-year mark. How does a supercomputer the size of your palm stop working after a measly two years? Companies have been doing it for decades, and it's called planned obsolescence.

Planned obsolescence is the act of purposely designing an item to fail, forcing the consumer to buy a new one. A movement called Right To Repair is fighting back, claiming manufacturers should make consumer goods repairable instead of disposable. First, let's look at some examples of how companies use planned obsolescence to get you to buy new and trash the old.

what is planned obsolescence

Planned Obsolescence

FOMO

the fear of missing out on a new device or phone is a tactic used in planned obsolescence

"OMG! The latest model just came out, and it has nine camera lenses! It's going to take way better selfies than this old thing." Your poor smartphone is only a year old, but you toss it aside for the next best model. Everyone else on Instagram will get way more followers than you if you don't upgrade. So, you upgrade.

Companies take advantage of our fear of missing out to generate more money. Next year, the new model will have even better cameras, faster processors, and more vivid colors, making your life extraordinary. 

According to the EPA, Americans throw out 416,000 mobile phones per day. That adds up to 151 million cell phones per year. Recycling just 1 million cell phones could recover 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium.

Impossible Repair

making a device or phone impossible to repair is a tactic used in planned obsolescence

Remember when the back of your phone case slid off, and the battery dropped with a slap against your palm? If you were to give that a try now, you'd find a seamless design that begs the question, "How do I even get in?" It almost seems impossible, but there is a way - you just don't have the tools for it. 

Suppose you do happen to make your way inside. In that case, you'll find soldering, proprietary screws, and irreplaceable parts make repair extremely difficult and expensive. You might as well just buy a new device. Enter the Right To Repair movement.

Contrived Durability

contrived durability is a tactic used in planned obsolescence

"They just don't make em' like they used to." You've heard your grandpa say it a thousand times, but he's right.

To shorten the lifespan of a consumer good, companies purposely use soft metals and plastic at critical parts, causing them to break quicker. An "out with the old, in with the new" cycle has contributed to America's growing e-waste problem.

The light bulb is one of the earliest cases of contrived durability. By the 1900s, the light bulb lasted up to 2,500 hours. To prove this, you can view one that's been burning since 1901. It's called the Centennial Bulb, and you can see it live at here.

Companies started to realize their ingenuity would become their downfall if they didn't change course. In 1924, leaders from the top lightbulb manufacturers formed what would be known as the Phoebus cartel. Their plan - monopolize the lightbulb market and reduce the lifespan from 2,500 hours to 1,000. They promoted this as a new and improved, brighter lightbulb. Of course, it was also more expensive.

Software Updates

software updates or the lack of software updates is a tactic used in planned obsolescence

Apple has been front-and-center when it comes to planned obsolescence. In 2020, they agreed to settle a $113 million lawsuit filed by 34 states and Washington DC, claiming the intentional slow-down of older iPhones. They continue to battle new cases of the exact nature to this day, including the most recent one for $500 million.

It's not always software updates that kill the product. Sometimes, it's the lack thereof. Microsoft officially cut off all support to the well-loved Windows 7 over a year ago. Maybe you upgraded, but now your printer won't work. Sigh. I guess you'll have to buy a new one.

Right To Repair

Right To Repair is a movement that states that consumers should have access to the tools, parts, documentation, and software to repair any item they have purchased and own.

What is Right To Repair?

Right To Repair is a movement that states that consumers should have access to the tools, parts, documentation, and software to repair any item they have purchased and own. If you're not a DIY type of person, don't worry. It also applies to being able to have your item repaired with any third-party repair shop you want.

Being able to repair what we own seems like a no-brainer. Legally we are allowed to do whatever we want with the items we've purchased. Despite illegal "Warranty Void" stickers, we can open and repair any electronic item without voiding the warranty under the 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. The problem happens when reparability is not an option.

The Argument Against Right To Repair

Companies argue against Right To Repair by stating it would create security risks and could cause damage to the operator

The Right To Repair movement goes beyond cell phones and computers. It applies to everything such as medical equipment to farming equipment. The inability to repair life-saving medical devices was a significant concern during the Covid pandemic. According to a recent study, more than 76% of biomeds (hospital equipment techs) have been denied access to parts or service manuals for critical medical equipment.

Manufacturers argue that the repair roadblocks put in place are for the security and safety of both the manufacturers and consumers. The FTC begs to differ in their Nixing The Fix report, stating, "There is scant evidence to support manufacturers' justifications for repair restrictions…."

Right To Repair Legislation

On July 9, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to stop manufacturers from preventing tech repair after purchase. Twenty-one days later, the FTC unanimously voted to enforce these laws surrounding Right To Repair.

The pressure is now on manufacturers to produce repairable electronics under the FTC's watchful eye. Consumers are encouraged to blow the whistle on illegal warranty-voiding claims. 

But what do you do with the electronics you can't fix? Recycle them with an R2 Certified Recycler like Sunnking.