Built to fail: is planned obsolescence really happening?

24 January 2018

Planned obsolescence has hit the headlines again, with a French lawsuit against Apple for slowing down phones and 17 US states pushing for new legislation allowing people to fix their own products.

But what is the impact of this on consumers and what should be done about it?

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Firstly, what is planned obsolescence?

Planned obsolescence means manufacturers deliberately designing products to fail prematurely or become out-of-date, often to sell another product or an upgrade – a practice that is barred in some countries. Some manufacturers also restrict consumers’ ability to repair their products – by using digital locks or copyrighted software, using incompatible screws or gluing components together, or by refusing to share their repair manuals. Some add clauses to their user agreements so people (often unknowingly) agree not to fix their own products. Although sometimes this is within the law, as consumers purchase more connected products their expectations of what they can and can’t do with a product they have bought are challenged.

For consumers this means their products don’t last as long as they could, and even small problems have to be dealt with by an approved repairer – sometimes at greater expense, distance and delay, especially if they don’t want to invalidate the warranty. This is an inconvenience for many, and one which arguably hits poorer and geographically isolated consumers harder.

The lifespan of electronic goods is becoming shorter, with the number of defective appliances replaced within five years increasing from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2013. At the same time, with increasingly smarter tech, such as that used in phones, e-waste and resource requirements increase with each new model. Not to mention the danger to health associated with the kind of recycling of components that takes place in the informal sector, particularly in developing countries.


So why are popular tech companies coming under the spotlight?

In December, it was found that Apple was deliberately ‘throttling’ – slowing down and turning off features in older models of its phones. They claim this will ensure the batteries function better and the phone won’t turn off suddenly. But others suspect it is a strategy topush consumers towards a new upgrade. Now French prosecutors, following lawsuits from users in the US and Israel, are investigating Apple over the allegations under the country’s law against planned obsolescence. Italy’s antitrust organisation is also investigating both Apple and Samsung for the same issue. Against this backdrop, Apple announced it would allow throttling to be turned on and off on its phones.

What next?

We recently produced a set of recommendations for Securing Trust in the Internet of Things which included calls for:

  • connected products to be easily upgradeable
  • updates to be made available to consumers regardless of location
  • devices, adaptors and other connection points to be made compatible with each other
  • Clear, comparable and credible information to be provided concerning expected lifetime and reparability of products
  • Products to be designed and built with resource efficiency in mind, from using sustainably produced materials and construction methods; to providing clear guidance to consumers on the most efficient use, re-use/repair and disposal of the product and its components.

The recommendations echoed those taken up by the G20 on the idea of fair use and clear ownership, which stated that ‘consumers need guarantees of their right to fair use. Controls that producers can exercise over the use of a product and its related data should be legitimate, fair and proportionate’. A commitment from the Argentinean presidency of the 2018 G20 to continue improving trust in the digital world gives consumer organisations and other groups the opportunity to further develop this work and identify practical solutions.

Consumers International member Test-Achats/TestAankoop has set up a reporting tool called Trop-vite-use on its website, aimed at creating a list of products which people feel have stopped working or worn out too quickly. Once enough information is collated, they will be able to target their product testing and advise on which brands to avoid. Although the reporting tool is not only for Internet of Things products, difficulties with fixing or keeping connected devices secure in the long term are key issues for durability in the Internet of Things. 

Any other solutions?

There’s a role for legislation too. Through our UN programme on consumer information for sustainability, we’ve been working with UN Environment, the French government and others to provide policy recommendations. Together we have recommended a number of policy and industry actions to increase product lifespan and reduce environmental waste -  a law against planned obsolescence; minimum durability criteria; product lifetime labelling; affordable and accessible repairs; Right to Repair legislation; monitoring of trends in product lifetimes; and consumer education and information.

Or is consumer demand something that could turn the tide on this issue? Take for example Fairphone, an ethically produced and easy to self-repair phone launched in 2013, which sold 25,000 handsets before production had even started. They now have 100,000 plus customers. Could smaller disrupter companies offer consumers ethically sourced and environmentally friendly alternatives?

Or do we need to look at new business models altogether? Maybe instead of owning products we should rent tech from companies, sending back our old tech for reuse when we’re ready for a replacement. That might be a good move for tech companies who have faced a barrage of criticism recently over various issues and are under increasing pressure to take more responsibility for the impact they have in our world.