In last week's article, we defined being a circular consumer. We saw that we can be responsible consumers by consuming less, renting products instead of owning them, using them only when we need them, and carrying out maintenance and repair processes for long-term use when we have to buy them. But is every product really durable enough to be used for a long time? The answer to this question is of course "no!" Still, is the reason for this lack of durability the use of poor-quality materials in production or careless behavior in consumption? Haven't you ever noticed that your phone, which you take care of very seriously, is gradually becoming unusable? Or have you ever said, "I will wear this t-shirt for a long time if I buy it from a quality brand," only to find that a few months later, the shape of the garment has shifted and the color has faded?
Unfortunately, the majority of the answers to these questions will be "yes." But don't worry, you may not be the reason why products become unusable much faster than they should.
➡️ Planned Obsolescence
Planned obsolescence, as the name suggests, is a marketing strategy in which a product is deliberately designed by the manufacturer to become obsolete or "outdated" faster. The aim here is to produce more to sell more, which can also be seen as "growth" in the economy. Products designed for planned obsolescence become unusable for the consumer after a while and the consumer wants to buy a new one. As a result, what is referred to as supply and demand in economics, but from a different perspective, can be seen as an artificial demand that is in fact forced by producers.
When an electronic device, a piece of clothing, a pair of shoes or any other product that can be used for a long time wears out unexpectedly and fast, consumers naturally feel the need to buy a new one. This, of course, requires manufacturers to meet this need (!)
The history of planned obsolescence
Although some smartphone manufacturers immediately come to mind when we think of planned obsolescence, the concept actually dates back to the 1920s. In 1924, a group of light bulb manufacturers called the Phoebus Cartel decided that light bulbs should have a maximum lifespan of 1,000 hours. Of course, this is much shorter than the lifespan of previous light bulbs.
In 1927, the automobile giant General Motors announced a design studio with the concept of "dynamic obsolescence" and announced that the models and colors of cars would be constantly updated. The main purpose of this design studio, which emerged as a result of the slow decline in automobile sales at the time, was to create a fashion trend for automobiles.
In the following years, dozens of marketing activities were carried out for planned obsolescence and in 1989, The New York Times, while reporting on the opening of the Zara store in New York, included the concept of "fast fashion" which paved the way for the start of the fast consumption craze.
The craze for fast consumption, which became more entrenched in the nineties, reached its peak in 2001 with Apple iPods. A revolutionary product, the iPod had "non-replaceable" batteries that lasted only 18 months. In other words, if you bought an iPod in 2001, it was certain that your iPod would not work in mid-2002, or late 2002 if you were lucky.
➡️ Responsibilities of Consumers, Manufacturers and Policy-Makers
This concept of planned obsolescence, which changed all consumption habits under the guise of economic growth, is still actively practiced today. This is, of course, the main reason for the waste and pollution caused by the inefficient use of resources today. So, is it possible to prevent planned obsolescence with circular economy? Let's try to answer this question through the main stakeholders that make up economies.
All the characteristics in last week's article “How to be a circular consumer” apply here. But in order to prevent planned obsolescence, we also need to acquire more specific consumption habits:
- Affordability should not always be the first choice in purchasing decisions. But that doesn't mean spending thousands of dollars on a brand logo. Buying from brands that use quality materials and have sustainable and ethical supply chains and production processes can allow products to be used for much longer. Regardless of the quality of the product, maintenance, repair and modification processes, just like in cars, should be valid for all products owned. The follow-up of these processes is, of course, at the initiative of consumers.
- Buying less can be seen as a consequence of buying durable goods. Consumerism can be prevented by buying products only when needed, without being fooled by their fashion or popularity, and to prioritize functionality. This can lead to the elimination of the artificial demand we mentioned in the introduction about the supply-demand balance, and therefore to a reduction in production.
- Preferring second-hand products can enable the widespread use of reuse, refurbishing and remanufacturing, which are becoming more and more innovative business models thanks to circular economy. A product that has outlived its usefulness for one consumer may still offer sufficient functionality for another. Or manufacturers, recognizing the demand for second-hand products, may seek to grow the so-called "second-hand" market by remanufacturing products that are no longer in use.
When it comes to the climate crisis and circular economy, producers are always the most criticized stakeholders. Since the current economic order is designed around the economic growth of producers, these criticisms are not unfounded. Yet there are steps that responsible manufacturers can take, especially against planned obsolescence.
- Manufacturers are the most important part of cultural transformation. Manufacturers who strive to meet the growing demand for more sustainable, ethical products with eliminated negative impacts can enable consumers to change their consumption habits accordingly.
- Although price reductions by manufacturers for competition purposes are seen today as keeping up with the free market conditions, it is a practice that encourages more consumption for consumers. Instead of lowering prices, it may be possible to prevent consumption frenzy by being a responsible manufacturer and selling quality products in smaller quantities for appropriate prices.
- Creating innovative revenue models with circular business models can also contribute to the economic growth of manufacturers and allow consumers to turn to the second-hand market instead of buying new products. In this way, resources can remain in the cycle and their value can be preserved for as long as possible.
- For manufacturers who have a significant power in shaping consumer habits, establishing a transparent, long-term, trust-based relationship with their customers can support both sustainable financial success and increased customer loyalty.
It is possible for manufacturers and consumers to change their existing habits, positively or negatively, through cultural transformation. But of course, this transformation can take many years. For this reason, it is possible for policy makers to completely change the planned obsolescence processes with various regulations in order to carry out a much more active process, especially in the transition to circular economy.
- Taxes or fines to be paid by consumers and producers per waste they are responsible for can be used as an important tool to prevent production and consumption frenzy. This would, of course, also prevent waste generation and take a serious step towards tackling the climate crisis.
- Regulations to ensure that manufacturers take responsibility for the entire life cycle of the products they produce would also be a critical step to prevent planned obsolescence. Processes of "after-use maintenance, repair, renewal, remanufacturing" should be added within the existing value chain of manufacturers.
- The recently popular "right to repair" movement basically defends the right of consumers to repair their products themselves. This right aims to make it easy for consumers, especially those who do not want to endure the effort of repair processes, to carry out repair processes very easily. With new regulations that lawmakers will enact in line with this right to repair, broken products will not be wasted and can be reused with easily accessible repair services.
- Finally, regulations to ensure that workers' rights are kept at a humane level across the globe could prevent the production frenzy by changing cheap labor. Manufacturers who cannot hire cheap labor will have to provide their workers with an environment where they can protect their basic human rights, and the mass production frenzy will gradually diminish.
🔎 Comment from Circular Economy 101: Planned obsolescence is certainly not the sole reason for the climate crisis or other social disasters. But a total systemic transformation is necessary to completely eliminate the simple but effective systemic problems that cause such production and consumption frenzy.
Just as fixing some of the problems within a linear economy is the same as sweeping them under the rug, so too are steps to prevent planned obsolescence. For this reason, we must not only find innovative solutions to problems in the circular economy, but also change the way we think and do business from top to bottom. For this, all stakeholders that make up social structures, but most importantly all individuals, need to gain awareness.