Environment | Topics

Is obsolescence really “planned”?

By : Julie Barlow

Electrical appliances don’t have to be replaced when they get old. A study by Équiterre shows consumers can play a role in making them last longer. 

“We all have a toaster story!”. Colleen Thorpe, Interim Executive Director at Quebec environmental organization Equiterre, knows the gut-wrenching feeling of having to throw out a broken toaster that’s only a few years old. “The last toaster repair person I knew closed shop about 5 years ago. He told me he just couldn’t get parts anymore,” says the former journalist and specialist in responsible consumption.

Whether it’s toasters or smart phones, it seems like we live in a world where things are actually designed to break. Economists call the phenomenon “planned obsolescence,” and over the last decade, it’s one that consumers have become increasingly aware of.

But are the breakdowns really programmed, or do we just fatalistically assume they are? Équiterre decided to examine these questions in its May 2018 report Obsolescence of Home Appliances and Electronics: What is the Role of the Consumer?

We wanted to take a critical look at what the industry’s share of responsibility was and how much belonged to the consumer.”

Colleen Thorpe, Executive Directeur at Equiterre and co-author of the study

The authors decided to narrow their focus to home appliances and electronics (HAEs), the category that includes vacuum cleaners, coffee/espresso machines, toasters and smart phones. They had a hunch that Canadians bought – and threw out – a lot of these items. Indeed, in a survey of 2202 people, 85% reported they had purchased a home appliance in the previous 2 years, and 83% had purchased an electronic device. The belief in planned obsolescence was also strong: 86% of respondents declared that HAEs were “deliberately designed to have a short lifespan.”

The study, which was conducted in collaboration with professors from École des services de Gestion–the business school at Université du Quebec à Montreal–concluded that it is hard to prove that widespread planned obsolescence exists. There have been a few famous cases, such as Apple deliberately slowing its older iPhones, which pushed consumers to buy new models, as well as the 2017 case of the French government investigating whether printers were purposely designed so that they couldn’t be repaired. However, the French government–a model in the new “repair economy”–found that it was difficult to actually identify cases of planned obsolescence. Equiterre’s report concluded that there were few proven cases of the practice. The authors of the study found that many experts challenged the notion that manufacturers deliberately built things to break, because it would risk tarnishing their reputation.

So why, then, do people so firmly believe in the existence of planned obsolescence? In fact, Équiterre found, very few respondents in their survey ever tried to fix an HAE. Only 19% of respondents reported trying to get their home appliances repaired and only 26% had tried to fix an electronic device.

Conspicuous Consumption

So Équiterre asked, are consumers really purchasing new devices because they have no choice? Or do they unknowingly play a role in the obsolescence phenomenon by “buying into” the idea that things were built to break? As the report points out, consumers have been conditioned for over a century to want to acquire “the next new thing.” Economist Thorstein Veblen coined the expression “conspicuous consumption” over a century ago, theorizing that products would be thrown out sooner because consumers were convinced they needed to buy new things to demonstrate their social status. This encouraged consumers “to get rid of products that were still useful and usable,” the study explains.

Obsolescence of Home Appliances and Electronics then looked at the triggers that lead people to replace goods instead of repairing them. It found that a number of people replaced goods because they couldn’t find spare parts, but other factors play a role. Some respondents bought HAEs simply because they wanted new devices with new features. Others were simply searching for novelty. Paradoxically, the quest for new eco-efficient products is increasingly pushing people to purchase new products. But the study found obsolescence was also related to simple “peer pressure.”

Équiterre concluded that consumers themselves contribute to the phenomenon of planned obsolescence. In short, what’s “planned” in obsolescence is not the appliances breaking, but the consumers’ desire to replace them. “There’s lot of frustration from consumers feeling they can’t do anything about this, that they are victims. But it’s a shared responsibility. Consumers can always say no and decide to consume less and buy used, and repair things,” Thorpe says.

Equiterre believes that businesses could–and should–do their part to prevent the premature disposal of manufactured goods. It believes manufacturers of HAEs should be forced to put labels on appliances that indicate their average lifespan and how to repair them. Furthermore, Equiterre concluded, the duration of a guarantee should match the article’s stated lifespan. Other measures should respond to the different “triggers” that prompt consumers to replace HAEs prematurely. The first are “quality seekers.” The report recommends that businesses offer these clients extended warranties. The second category of consumers are those who want their technology to be up to date. For these consumers, businesses should favour rental plans. To the third category, consumers who seek novelty, businesses should offer a guaranteed trade-in price subject to the good working condition of the device.

The French Model

Équiterre recommends that governments promote “repairs,” “reuse” and “the functional service economy” (the sale of services rather than products). The report cites France and Sweden as model countries in this regard. France is currently the only country with a law that specifically prohibits the practice of planned obsolescence – it has been included in the Consumer Protection Code since 2016. The French appliance company Seb makes toasters with a 10-year parts guarantee. “This is the type of thing we want to see happen,” says Colleen Thorpe.

The report includes measures the Canadian government could take to stimulate a repair economy, such as lowering taxes for repair companies, promoting repair-related professions, implementing incentives to promote rentals and repairs, passing legislation on the posting and extension of product lifespans and extending manufacturer warranty periods based on average lifespans.

Colleen Thorpe sees hope in the recent initiative by students from the University of Sherbrooke who proposed a bill opposing planned obsolescence to the Quebec legislature.

Consumers have to understand that, yes, they are victims when they purchase an appliance that breaks down and they can’t repair it. But they are not victims when they are simply falling into the trap of marketing that encourages them to consume more.”

Colleen Thorpe


She recommends consumers consult Greenpeace’s ranking of 44 best-selling electronic devices (telephones, tablets and laptop computers) based on repairability criteria.

Colleen Thorpe also sees hope for the repair economy. “Some visionary thinkers are starting to see the end of this throw-away society. Granted it’s not happening that quickly. But we could reach a tipping point when major brands position themselves in the circular economy saying we’re putting an object out there for its use and to make it last long.”

The study

Équiterre published the study Obsolescence of Home Appliances and Electronics: What is the Role of the Consumer? in May, 2018 with financial support from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and RECYC-QUÉBEC.  The organization mandated the Observatoire de la consommation responsable (Responsible Consumption Observatory) of the Université du Québec à Montreal (UQAM) to conduct a study on the role of Canadian consumers in the obsolescence of HAEs. The report includes a survey of 2202 respondents on obsolescence-related practices, a literature review of such practices, an indication of promising initiatives in Canada, the US and Europe, and recommendations to consumers, business and government.

Having concluded that consumers play a significant role in replacing appliances prematurely, the authors make a number of recommendations, including that businesses indicate the predicted lifespan of appliances and offer warranties that match that lifespan.  They also recommend that the government promote “reuse and repair” and “the functional repair economy” through legislation and incentives.