Planned obsolescence: devil or angel?

Have you ever own a product that is damaged just after the warranty is over? There are many reasons that can explain such phenomena and are mainly related to bad product care. However, sometimes we face a situation in which the product was designed to function properly just during a certain time period. Afterwards, some repairs, updates, new gadgets and other general improvements are needed in order for the product to be used normally. Moreover, sometimes it is cheaper just to through away the current product and buy a new one, fact encouraged by the throwaway culture promoted by nowadays consumerism... This does not look like a sustainable solution, does it?


Planned obsolescence is a topic of discussion regarding the social and environmental responsibility of engineers and designers around the word. Even though products may become obsolete for many reasons, such as the appearance of a new technological breakdown or changes in social interests, planned obsolescence costs consumers lots of money by making them buy new gadgets, pay for repair, or update services. Beyond the economic cost, the environmental costs are rising due to lack of proper waste management and the use of more resources to build new products to replace the old ones.  Even though some degree of planned obsolescence is necessary for products to be affordable, (e.g. making all pieces of a phone to last for ten years would make too expensive and even not capable to keep up with technological innovations); the role of engineers and designers is critical to not to trespass limits of social and environmental responsibility during product planning


At this point, you can wonder how it can be possible: How engineers and designers can become guardians of sustainable product design.  Well, obsolescence can also be planned to decrease the environmental impact of product’s waste once they are not going to be used anymore. Furthermore, a product can be designed to be easily recycled, reused or updated to follow technological developments; this would represent a step further in the switch towards a more environmentally friendly culture inside consumerism. As an example of such initiatives is dreamt by an organization called The Greener Grass, when planning to design not a smart phone but a product service system. Their main idea is for consumers not to buy but to lease the phone services for a year, after which you send back your old phone and receive a new one up to date with technological developments and with all your information included. The idea is to design phones in such a way that are easily dissembled and suitable for easy recycling.  


Even though is still an idea, it serves as inspiration for us to think what can we do to merge two concepts seemingly opposite as planned obsolescence and sustainability in order to improve the way we use our resources and manage our waste. On the other hand, we can do some things as consumers to decrease the impact of planned obsolescence on the world: buy products with higher life span such as LED lights, try to fix things ourselves instead of throw them away immediately (learning is easy and fun – and youtube is full of lessons!), recycle as much as you can (there are firms specialized on handling electronic waste), and raise awareness about our social and environmental responsibility regarding planned obsolescence as well! 



Dunn, C. (March 8, 2008). How Planned Obsolescence Can Be Good for the Planet. Retrieved from:

María José Galeano Galván

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