Planned Obsolescence, The Cause of Bad-teries

Understanding the Dynamics of the Tech Industry and its Consumers


Mian Hua Zheng

Nelson Zheng ’19 considers how planned obsolescence plays a role in economics and technology.

When my 50% battery turned into 5% within a few minutes, I could scarcely hide my disappointment with the time it took to charge compared to the time it took to run out of battery. The green light of a healthy battery became a rare sight on my iPhone. Instead, I saw the yellow light of “low power” mode for Apple iPhones constantly flashing. The people who sat next to me in classes asked me for my portable phone charger all the time.

The struggle of a dying phone is no stranger for many students. The reason behind declining battery life might be because of Apple itself. “I feel like when a new iPhone comes out, the one I have currently starts to lag,” Rachel Choi ’19 said.

Planned obsolescence is the policy of deliberately limiting the battery life of a product in order to encourage the purchaser to replace it. In other words, it makes products worse so that customers have to buy new, updated versions.

This business tactic recently came into the spotlight when Apple admitted to slowing down models of the iPhone 6 and Special Edition and offering battery replacements for them until the end of 2018. Planned obsolescence is no new concept, with many other companies utilizing the same method. This concept can be applied from everyday objects like light bulbs to televisions and other electronics. There are many factors that relate to planned obsolescence: economics and money circulation, psychology, and business.

Planned obsolescence has an especially negative impact on the environment. According to ACCIONA, a company that is actively working on sustainability, about 50 million tons of electronic waste overall are generated annually. 85% of the electronic waste is discarded randomly, resulting in hundreds of landfills and pollution. Many European countries have taken action to counter this waste. Spain’s Foundation for Energy and Sustainable Innovation, for instance, certifies whether goods and companies meet environmentally-friendly standards. France combats planned obsolescence by fining companies up to 300,000 euros ($344,000) and a two year sentence. GreenPeace is another non-governmental organization planning to offer repairs for mobile devices in order to discourage new electronic purchases. Given how environmentally harmful planned obsolescence is, many may wonder why companies stop this practice. Well, the solution isn’t that easy. Although making technology more energy efficient would logically reduce waste, one needs to consider the economic impacts as well. This tactic not only plays a role in waste, but also businesses’ favorite M-word: money.

“There has to be a reason behind obsolescence, and I trust that businesses can be responsible about that. There’s bound to be a tradeoff somewhere with other sectors of society when there’s money involved,” said Nelson Zheng ’19. There is a fine balance between the dynamics of money circulation and economics. This is especially true for the United States, where technology-related employment contributed about $11.6 trillion dollars to GDP and created a net growth of 200,000 new jobs. According to an annual analysis by CompTIA Cyberstates, a leading technology industry association, there were already 11.5 million tech workers in 2017. According to Spanish environmental organization ‘Amigos de la Tierra,’ or ‘Friends of the Earth,’ customers lose an estimated $57,000 a year thanks to planned obsolescence. The money lost is circulated in today’s economy.

Other than for mere profit, it is essential to reconsider the reasons why planned obsolescence is utilized. Certain behaviors that humans indulge in, such as conspicuous consumption, make planned obsolescence work even more effectively in modern society. For example, wanting the new iPhone or television for the sake of showing off is a mindset that has been present since the earliest development of consumer demand and production increase. Though planned obsolescence plays a role in economics, recognizing the nature of 2019’s consumption culture is essential to breaking down the dynamics of the steps of companies like Apple.

Although making technology more energy efficient would logically reduce waste, one needs to consider the economic impacts as well. This tactic not only plays a role in waste, but also businesses’ favorite M-word: money.

“Planned obsolescence sucks, but to be honest, it really does work. It makes me want to buy any new products of Apple,” said Choi.

Although planned obsolescence hurts consumers financially, product consumption will continue because of how ingrained consumerism is in our current society. Even if the reason for buying a new phone is because the battery is dying, you cannot deny that the other reason is to show off the new edition. Brand loyalty also plays another factor, with many people usually siding with certain tech companies. I, for one, would not give up my iPhone for a Samsung despite its weak battery, for reasons such as preferring its operating system, style, and looks.

Overall, there are several factors to consider when your phone suddenly resets by itself, or when your favorite light bulbs die in a day. The U.S. should become more involved in realizing the environmental impact of planned obsolescence, following in the steps of Spain and France to take action against it, but in a well thought-out manner due to the role tech plays in our economy. Planned obsolescence: it’s complicated!