Planned Obsolescence

Have you heard of planned obsolescence? It’s when a product is planned or designed with an artificially useful life. In this way, it becomes obsolete either from a purely superficial standpoint or from a functional one.

It’s disconcerting to learn that the world is conspiring to trick you into buying more. We see how marketing and advertisements infiltrate our lives: product placements in movies and tv shows, ad circulars, billboards, etc. My Dad would always say, “don’t believe everything you hear.” This quip often came after my young bout of enthusiasm about a commercial for a seemingly exciting product. I quickly learned to be skeptical, to see each ad as someone trying to pull the wool over my eyes, and this served as a foundation when developing my minimalist lifestyle.

Minimalism is about pulling away the layers of distraction and dishonesty. They can be oppressive, though you may not be aware of their weight until you truly see them. Each layer of myth and motive may not be diabolical but neither is it in our best interest as consumers.

By understanding planned obsolescence, we clearly see the economic attempt to encourage us to purchase multiple versions of a similar product in a short time span, helping us create a mindset shift. With this awareness, we can question the product development system; it becomes transparent. From here, our purchasing decisions are educated ones.

Let’s consider some examples. After several years with my cordless vacuum cleaner, it was only letting out small bursts of power. I called the company to find out what was wrong. Turns out, the battery was caput and because it was such an old model they no longer sold replacement batteries. Five more iterations of the vacuum were released since I purchased mine. I’m willing to believe its technology improved a bit but the version I had suited my needs. Still, I had to purchase a new one. Four versions were currently available and I chose the second to oldest, eschewing the high price points of newest versions (the customer service representative even warned me about their efficacy). I had to replace a product that should have lasted longer and the many iterations in a short time span were clearly not huge jumps in technological advancements. This is planned obsolescence at it’s finest.

The iPhone is a classic case. Knowing this, I have still found it’s use to be great enough to purchase and periodically replace it, though I don’t purchase each new generation or immediately when I can upgrade. I mitigate by waiting until my current version has problems rather than is simply lacking in new features. We can see planned obsolescence and still participate, but with awareness.

An industry fully entrenched in planned obsolescence is the fashion world. It perpetrates this scheme in two ways: superficial and functional. By creating trends, a beautiful and desired top becomes passé in a couple of years. Nothing has changed about the top other than the fashion culture around it. For those that follow fashion, this may seem like a big shift appearance-wise. For those that don’t, there’s a residual cultural affect when someone is dressed out of style. It may indicate poor taste or lower financial status. Functionally, cheap clothes are produced so they can only be worn a season or two before they fall apart. While fashion and technology are planned obsolescence experts, most industries partake in this trick.

Minimalism invites us not to play this game. And more importantly, it reminds us that we’ll all lose if we do. If you focus on just what you need, and disregard the noise, the trends, and develop a keen eye for planned obsolescence products, you’ll better be able to create a minimalist lifestyle that lasts.



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