You may be wondering when and why the concept of planned obsolescence emerged. In 1929, the Wall Street crash happened in America, signalling the beginning of a 12 year economic depression, known as The Great Depression. Unemployment rates skyrocketed and people stopped buying things. This had a devastating effect on the manufacturers as there was little demand for new products. The introduction of modern technology was significantly increasing the productivity of factories but this wasn’t being exploited due to the lack of active consumers. People were desperate to find a solution to this economic disaster.
In 1932, Bernard London, a Jewish-American real estate broker, wrote the paper “Ending the depression through planned obsolescence” to push forward his ‘solution’ for the economic depression. He is considered to be responsible for coining the term ‘Planned Obsolescence’. I have read this paper and I am astonished at his perspective on consumerism. I strongly disagree with his proposal but did find it very eye-opening to hear such an opposing point of view. His paper was rather controversial back then but reading it now I was shocked by how oblivious he was to the environmental concerns associated with planned obsolescence.
When introducing his idea he emphasises how fields and factories are ready to produce “unlimited quantities”. His disregard for the fact that the planet has finite resources is quite clear and highlights the lack of awareness of some people had back in the 1930’s. He goes on to accuse people of “disobeying the law of obsolescence” as during the Great Depression people were trying to make their belongings last longer in order to save money. I find it very frustrating that the fact people were maintaining and repairing products is considered negative. It is clear to me early on in the paper that London was a very profit driven man.
London then summarises his plan, that he claims would put America on “the road to recovery”, saying we should assign an expiry date to every good at the time of its production. The idea is that the the goods should only be used up until their expiry date, after which they would be declared “legally dead”. Once an object has ‘died’, the owner should return it to a government agency who will exchange the product for a receipt indicating the value of the object. The owner can then use this receipt to subsidise the cost of the new replacement product. London claims this will ensure a constant production of new products which will keep “the wheels of industry” going. The government will use the money collected from a sales tax to pay the consumers motivating the public to get rid of old and buy new products.
The worst part of this proposed system is that people were to be fined for continuing to use ‘dead’ goods. Consequently people would be forced into constantly buying new products even if what they currently owned was working effectively. Now don’t get me wrong, I am aware of the obvious economic benefit to this plan. If people are forced to constantly buy new products then there will always be a demand for new goods which would provide secure employment in these industries. However, there are two big issues with this proposal that highlight how it is ethically wrong. Firstly, although there would be more people employed even those with a job wouldn’t be able to afford to buy the new products. They would be be stuck with their “dead” belongings for which they would be endlessly fined. They would be caught in a vicious circle of debt. Then there is the obvious environmental issue.
London talks about the “abundant supplies of raw materials” that we have. That is simply not true. I’m sure you are well aware of the serious issues we are facing with our finite resources like fossil fuels. A big elephant in the room is what happens to all of the goods once they are declared “legally dead”. Throughout his paper, London uses the word “destroy” multiple times to describe how we will get rid of these “dead” goods. This vague description shows London’s naivety, or blatant lack of interest, in how they would dispose of this constant stream of goods. He takes this one step further when he talks about obsolete buildings and machines simply ‘disappearing’. This disregard and lack of responsibility for the disposal of his legally “dead” objects is bewildering to me. His referral to things being thrown into a “junk pile” has a depressing likeness to how we deal with our obsolete goods today. We have all seen the pictures of landfill sites that are growing at an unmanageable rate across the globe.
The idea of making planned obsolescence a legal requirement thankfully did not take off. Bernard London’s proposal was rejected, which does give me some faith in humanity. However this was not the end of planned obsolescence. 20 years later, in the 1950’s, it resurfaced. This time the concept was widely accepted due to one vital difference. Consumers were not forced to buy new things under law, instead they were seduced. Clever marketing and advertisements lead to the emergence of a consumer based society. People were sucked into the idea of buying new things even though they didn’t need them. This is still the case today, we are all victims of planned obsolescence, even if we don’t realise it.