(Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes, 45 seconds)

When thinking about the environment I alternate between wanting to shake people alive by grabbing them and yelling “have you heard this?!?” , feebly thinking WTF?, and wishing that we could change from a society where almost everyone believes that the great wall is visible from space to one where everyone knows the dark history of light bulbs. 

In this case topic is planned obsolescence, and my message is "have you heard this?!?"

Major Takeaway: We intentionally design products to fail to spur the economy. 

We don't make things like we used to, and it's on purpose. 

Corporations look at this and think... Ya, but now we are making so much money. 
In the late 1890's, the Shelby Electric Company produced a light bulb that's still burning today, a whopping 112 years after it was installed. This miracle bulb has survived two world wars, the Great Depression, Justin Beiber, and 981 of its traditional 1,000hr incandescent friends.  But if every family only bought light bulbs once every few decades (or once a century), how would light bulb companies ever make money? For the sake of profits and economic growth, goods are intentionally designed to fail and require replacement. So our economy grows, yet we consume and waste resources at an alarming rate. Welcome to the twisted savior of planned obsolescence. 

Why didn't all of our light bulbs last for decades by the 1920's? Because they were artificially capped at 1000 hours of production, aka less than the 1050 hours of the first light bulb ever sold commercially

This strategy by corporations is called planned obsolescence. Corporations instruct engineers to design products that reach a perfect balance between quality and turnover. The goal is to produce a product that breaks or becomes useless as quickly as possible while still satisfying the lowest threshold of a customer's demand for quality. Learn about this and much more in the following movie, a must watch. Full length HERE, trailer below. 

Goods are designed for profit - not consumers 
Nylons that could pull cars! In the 1940s. Picture from "The Light Bulb Conspiracy". 
"The Light Bulb Conspiracy" features other examples of planned obsolescence, including car-pulling nylon stockings. Yes, read it again. Car-pulling nylon stockings. 

This was the first batch of stockings, before engineers were told to "make them weaker." The film also chronicles a Spanish man whose printer has a chip that tells you it's broken and a new one is needed after 10,000 pages, and irreplaceable batteries in Apple iPods

The documentary also show the final resting place of many electric products: Electrical waste dumped in developing countries. It chronicles a a Ghanaian man fighting streams of illegal E-waste and tracking discarded items back to their source. The E-waste issue has been documented in many other areas... here's a infographic on E-waste, a recent Economist article, and a video on E-waste in China.  

Case in point: The Gillette Mach3  deception
Introduced in 2001, the Gillete Mach3 Razor was a completely non-revolutionary new product. In 2006 Gillette launched the Gillette Fusion, a five-bladed marvel that was substantially better than the three-blade razor. The scientific community was again astounded by Gillette's technological innovation.

In June 2012, I saw a commercial in Honduras proudly featuring the Gillette Mach3 as "the best a man can get!". Wait. Really? The product came out eleven years ago, but you are releasing it in a developing country like it's the best new thing? This seemed ridiculous, but it drives home another point: 

The products we consume are not the best that a company could produce. 

Technological advancements might already be developed, but are released slowly through different versions of a similar product. Gillette selling the Mach3 Razor to Hondurans as the "best a man can get" isn't at all different than advertising that features of the "New and Improved 2012 Toyota Corolla", a car that's managed to decrease from approx. 32.4 mpg in 1992 to 31.6 mpg in 2012 (measured by driver calculated mileage). In The Daily Green's list of goods designed to fail, they also mention video games, fashion, consumer electronics, textbooks, and software. I love the stamp they put on these products: "barely improved and a little more expensive".

Final thoughts- throw out the model?

I love the power of business and capitalism. It has proven an extremely effective system for facilitating rapid increases in wealth and quality of life. The problem is that it’s also a system that favors short-term profits and "accountable" results instead of long-term sustainability and externalities like environmental damages. 

I write this post not to kill the corporate model and advocate a no-growth strategy, but to say that we need to be better informed and use these lessons as a blueprints for making companies more responsible, sustainable, and accountable for their actions. Because at the moment consumers and the planet are getting screwed over, and we can't seem to collectively know or care. 


Kurt Berning

Cheers to Dr. Kolmes at the University of Portland for first showing me the Light Bulb Conspiracy Video. If you didn't watch it yet, go back and click on it now. A worthwhile 52 minutes.