Maeve Sneddon is a Program Assistant for the Aspen Tech Policy Hub.
As you read this article, take a moment to think about the device you’re reading it on. Most likely, it’s a laptop or smartphone. Think for a moment about when you got that device. Has it been over a year? Over five years? Try to remember why you replaced your device. Did it stop working? Slow down? Did you really want to replace it, or did you feel like you had to?
If you’re reading on a laptop, your device is expected to last 3-5 years on average, and the average for smartphones is only 2-3 years. Often, these short life spans are not due to consumers wanting or needing a replacement device, but rather to a technique called planned obsolescence.
Planned obsolescence is an economic technique by which companies purposely make their products unusable after a few years. By making their products obsolete, companies drive demand for newer replacement products, thereby increasing profit. An exceedingly common practice with a long history in the United States, planned obsolescence is also driven by an ethos of consumerism, where customers are led to think that they always need the newest model, all the time.
Tech companies are especially guilty of planned obsolescence. One of the most famous examples in popular memory is “batterygate.” In 2017, there was a controversy over slowing batteries in older iPhone models, which happened suspiciously close to the time Apple released its new model. As batteries slowed, and it was unclear how to change them, consumers were left with almost no option but to buy a new phone. This turned out to be a proven example of planned obsolescence. In 2020, Apple paid $113 million to settle consumer fraud lawsuits over “batterygate”, admitting that it had purposefully slowed down batteries on older models in order to sell newer models.
Planned obsolescence has a variety of negative consequences for consumers. Consumers are deliberately deceived into buying tech products that won’t last, costing them time and money to replace said products every few years. Information on durability, repair, and warranties are also often hidden from consumers, leaving them with only no other options but to buy a new product. This practice pushes big costs onto consumers; according to a recent report by US PIRG, Americans are spending $1480 per year on new electronics.
Planned obsolescence also negatively affects the environment, especially when it comes to e-waste. Because it is often challenging to recycle products like smartphones or laptops, by encouraging people to replace products unnecessarily, tech companies generate a huge amount of waste. E-waste is especially dangerous because of its toxicity—it can contain harmful chemicals like lead and mercury. In addition, much of the e-waste in landfills today is not necessarily waste at all, but rather fully intact tech products that could last for many more years or be refurbished or repaired. The US generates 6.9 million tons of this potentially toxic e-waste every year, and the numbers are only increasing.
The alternative to planned obsolescence is, of course, making products that last longer. Some call this planned durability, and it has shown to be beneficial for consumers and the environment and, in the long run, even brings down costs for companies.
There are a variety of paths to planned durability. Perhaps the most aggressive solution is to outright ban the practice of planned obsolescence, as is the case in France. This allows French citizens and organizations to sue companies that practice planned obsolescence. While this practice is undoubtedly effective, it is an aggressive one that is unlikely to take hold in the United States.
Another potential solution is a labeling system, whereby products that meet a certain metric for durability would receive a verified label, signaling to the consumer that the product is built to last. Similar to the Energy Star label, this label could be created and maintained by a federal agency to promote trust and transparency for consumers.
A third potential policy solution is extended warranty agreements. Other countries have had success passing laws mandating that products last longer. For example, in Italy, tech products have to have a two-year warranty as a minimum. By mandating longer warranties, policymakers will increase the durability of tech products for consumers.
A solution that has gained popularity is the “right to repair” movement. This campaign encourages policymakers to pass legislation promoting servicing and repair of devices. There are indeed many right to repair bills in motion in various states, and while most focus specifically on agricultural or medical devices, there are several that apply to all consumer devices, including HB 1212 in Washington and HB 415 in Hawaii.
In addition to policy-based solutions, there are also solutions that already exist within the private sector. Buy-back or trade-in programs allow customers to sell or trade their used tech items back to companies, usually for store credit. These types of programs are beneficial for both businesses and consumers, and they naturally disincentivize planned obsolescence—with programs like these, companies are encouraged to make their items durable, so they can then buy back used products and refurbish and resell them. This allows companies to increase their profits while helping protect the environment and consumers. Apple and Microsoft already have programs like these, and many other companies are taking important steps to create their own trade-in programs.
No matter what solution is taken, it is clear that the time to move away from planned obsolescence is now. Consumers are increasingly focused on the environment and sustainability, meaning this shift has the opportunity to benefit companies as much as it benefits consumers and the environment.