Moving from Planned Obsolescence to Planned Permanence
Planned obsolescence became a business strategy in 1924 when light bulb manufacturers formed the Phoebus Cartel. Companies such as General Electric and Philips joined together to reduce the lifecycle of the light bulb from 2500 hours to 1000. By reducing the hours, these manufacturers increased sales and improved their bottom line.
Today, planned obsolescence forms the basis of many business models. Think of the industries that revolve around the design, construction, and promotion of the next version of their product. Corporations in industries such as automotive, fashion, and computers have amassed fortunes delivering products that become outdated in years or months.
While this business strategy may increase revenue, it also consumes precious resources that are becoming more difficult to find. The continued consumption of limited resources poses a threat to economic viability and environmental sustainability. What happens when critical resources are depleted?
The philosophy is sometimes known as built-in obsolescence. It deliberately limits a product’s life cycle to encourage purchasing of replacement products. Companies use different approaches to obsolescence, as discussed below.
Manufacturers use materials that break easily or deteriorate faster, forcing consumers to replace the product. For example, how many times has a child’s toy failed after a few hours of play?
Sometimes, repairing a product can be more costly than replacing it. Appliances are an excellent example of this form of obsolescence. Whether a coffee pot or a refrigerator, fixing the product may require a high-priced part and an expensive specialist, making it more cost-effective to purchase a replacement.
Companies are very persuasive. They can easily make consumers feel that their electronics or clothes are out-of-date. Releasing technology with new features every year encourages consumers to purchase the latest model, whether or not they need the new feature.
Obsolescence occurs when new product designs are incompatible with earlier versions. They may stop supporting older versions or producing replacement parts. As a result, consumers are forced to replace the device. For example, computer manufacturers often prevent upgrading an existing device by limiting the number of computer chips that can be added for more processing power or memory.
Think back to the light bulb. Manufacturers created light bulbs that stopped functioning after 1000 hours, even though they could operate for another 1,500 hours. The companies designed the product to fail after an arbitrary threshold was reached.
How difficult is it to find toner cartridges for older model printers or copiers? In some cases, manufacturers stop producing older cartridges, making it difficult to keep equipment operational. This planned depletion ultimately forces consumers or businesses to replace a functioning older model simply because they can’t replace a consumable part.
Aren’t there options that encourage responsible use of resources?
An alternative approach to planned obsolescence is planned permanence, which focuses on environmental, social, and economic sustainability. The World Economic Forum defines a circular economy as an industrial system that replaces planned obsolescence with restorative strategies that use renewable energy, eliminate toxic chemicals, and minimize waste through superior design.
To achieve planned permanence, the focus on sustainability must begin during the design phase. Every product design should:
- Eliminate waste and pollution
- Keep products and materials in use
- Regenerate natural systems
By incorporating these principles into every design, companies can help create a sustainable circular economy by building products designed to last.
Starting a Sustainability Plan
Before starting a sustainability plan, companies need to ask some difficult questions about their culture and business goals. For example,
- Is the company fostering a permanence versus an obsolescence mindset?
- What financial resources will be allocated?
- Are the right people available to orchestrate a plan?
- Will executive management be an active participant?
Creating a sustainability plan involves more than a list of things to do. Participants must be encouraged to search out solutions that support sustainability. Corporations must foster a paradigm shift to facilitate change after decades of viewing business through an obsolescence lens.
Encouraging a Sustainability Mindset
Companies rarely consider a building’s infrastructure when looking for office space. Their focus is on cost per square foot and the bottom line. They don’t ask questions such as
- How efficient are the heating and cooling systems?
- Are features in place to take advantage of natural light to reduce electrical usage?
- What happens when the space needs to be reconfigured to support new technology?
If corporations create a sustainability mindset, those tasked with finding office space will look at the longer-term consequences of a decision.
For example, as companies deploy more technology, they need the flexibility to reconfigure a workspace to support more workstations, add another lab, or increase the size of meeting rooms. That means recabling and rewiring the infrastructure, which often leads to tearing down walls and relaying floors.
Suppose there was a way to reconfigure cables and wires to encourage sustainability?
Gridd® raised flooring is a reusable and reconfigurable solution. When an organization needs to expand a workspace, there’s no need to tear up the floor or crawl around in the ceiling. Instead, companies can remove pieces of the adaptive flooring and reconfigure the cables without consuming additional building resources. The solution not only saves on environmental resources but also protects the business’ economic investment.
Finishing the Sustainability Plan
Once an organization has performed its self-assessment, it’s time to finish the sustainability plan using the following steps.
Step 1. Identify the business processes that use scarce resources. These resources go beyond the environment to include social and economic impacts that a company’s products and services may have.
Step 2. Establish a current baseline for the consumption of critical resources.
Step 3. Set goals for improved sustainability and include key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure progress.
Step 4. Create a prioritized list of possible initiatives to meet goals.
Step 5. Define specific actions required to support the sustainability initiatives.
As corporations implement their sustainability plans, they should consider identifying vendors and partners that can contribute to their sustainability goals.