Have you ever heard of “planned obsolescence”? It describes a company’s decision to make a product that will fail, break, become outdated, or otherwise stop providing value to the consumer. Sometimes it means just making a poor-quality item; other times, manufacturers are a little sneakier —- phasing out the production of spare parts to make the product difficult, if not impossible, to repair or in the case of technology, designing software that isn’t compatible with older models of the device.
Planned obsolescence is designed to part the consumer from more of his or her money, by making it easier and/or cheaper to buy a replacement instead of repairing the broken one. Combined with Americans’ materialism, love of disposable products, and emphasis on quantity over quality, planned obsolescence is a major driver behind the staggering 254 million tons of waste that we produce each year.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
In fact, a sizeable and growing number of people are saying no to commercialism, built-in failure, and unnecessary waste. They are hearkening back to a popular motto and mindset from the days of the Depression and war-related rations and shortages: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
To that end, there’s been a boom in the number of repair cafes, also known as fix-it clinics. These are grassroots events and organizations where community members come together to actively reject throwaway culture and cheaply made consumer goods. Staffed by volunteers who lend their know-how and skills, fix-it clinics are free and open to the public. The items that people bring run the gamut from clothing, fine jewelry, and leather handbags to small kitchen appliances, tablets, smartphones, bicycles, furniture, and much, much more.
Another aspect of these fix-it clinics is that the volunteers don’t just repair an item and send it on its merry way. Many times, they take an active role in teaching their “customers” and other would-be fixers how to perform maintenance and repair tasks themselves. Sharing knowledge on both a face-to-face basis and through the vast array of DIY videos and tutorials online is an important component of the burgeoning fix-it culture and community.
Of course, there is another way to fight back against planned obsolescence, one that occurs at the other end of the consumer cycle: don’t buy technological devices or other items that will become obsolete. While no one can predict the quality or life expectancy of every single product, it’s not hard to take a stab at it. Here are some of the clues that can help you determine how long that gizmo in your Amazon cart is going to last:
- A short warranty. The length of the warranty is generally proportionate to the item’s lifespan.
- Proprietary parts. If the item — usually tech — is not compatible with generic chargers, batteries, or other accessories, you are going to spend more money on it in the long run, and/or will need to replace it sooner than the same product that accepts third-party components.
- Country of origin. Products that are made in China, India, Vietnam, or other countries that manufacture inexpensive consumer goods for export to the U.S. aren’t automatically poor quality, but it can be a reliable tip-off.
- Inaccessible repair manual. Before you purchase a high-ticket item, check to see if you can find the repair manual online. Lawyers for Apple, for example, spend enormous amounts of time and money quashing bootleg repair information.
- Cheap or shoddy components. Examine products in-person whenever possible. Shopping online makes it hard to tell if power cords, knobs, buttons, seams or hinges, and the like seem flimsy or cheaply made.
- Unusually low prices. Price isn’t always the best arbiter of quality, but in general, you do get what you pay for. If something seems too good to be true, take a closer look or check out online reviews.
Purchasing your products from smaller companies, family-run businesses, or craftsmen is another method for ensuring that you’re spending your money wisely. Their reputation is on the line, and in most cases, they would rather sell fewer items for more money, but reap customer loyalty and word-of-mouth reputation, than to get rich quick selling low-quality items.
“We stand by all of our products and offer a lifetime guarantee,” says Bill Speer of S.S. Firepits. “It’s a matter of taking pride in our work, plain and simple.”
Planned obsolescence may seem like a deceitful, dubiously moral way to do business, but it’s become part and parcel of being a consumer in 21st century America. However, there are ways to reject the conspicuous consumption that it helps perpetuate. Buy products from smaller artisans and craftsmen when you can. If you can’t, do your homework before purchasing anything that you think might not provide value for the money. And teach yourself how to repair broken items, or take part in a local fix-it clinic!