Designed to Break: Is programming premature product lifespans a form of corporate crime?

A blogpost by Lieselot Bisschop and Yogi Hale Hendlin
Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity
Hour glass filled with broken electronics

Our expensive electronic devices notoriously have short lifespans. Most mobile phones start experiencing technical hiccups after two years of use; some printers have a predetermined number of pages they print before they go kaput; and many consumer products are designed to be virtually impossible to repair. Sometimes these products break due to normal wear and tear, but more often than not, products were deliberately engineered to become obsolete. Why? To increase turnover, moving consumers to purchase new ones, again and again. Our entire material consumer economy is intentionally built not to last – a business strategy known as planned obsolescence.

An open secret for more than a century, business plans banking on consumer products breaking and getting replaced was once entertained as a sound solution to ‘end’ the Great Depression. But it has persisted in many new guises. In the 1950s, buying something ‘a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than necessary’ was coined to be a strategy for success in designing consumer products. Half a century later, highstreet fast fashion retailers advertise 24 ‘micro-seasons’ rather than the traditional two (spring/summer & fall/winter), enticing consumers to replace clothes quicker than ever before.

Planned obsolescence is not a new topic in academia: it has been studied as an economic theory, since the 1980s, and more recently as a business strategy and a case for business ethics. In the last decade, legal scholars have studied the legislative initiatives in some countries to ban planned obsolescence or have analyzed the legal intricacies of class actions suits. Also normative questions have arisen regarding which legal response – competition law, consumer protection law, environmental law or criminal law – are the most adequate to regulate planned obsolescence.

By aiming to ensure regular purchases of things that don’t necessarily need to be purchased regularly, planned obsolescence wastes the planet’s nonrenewable resources and costs consumers dearly. It leads to excessive trash and pollution, and the constant production of new products depletes natural resources faster than otherwise. Especially for consumer electronics, the size and toxicity of the waste is problematic given the toxic substances they contain and the scarcity of the (precious) metals used to make them, which often derive from extractive practices associated with human rights abuses.

Two broken mobile phones
Simon Whitfield

Products become obsolete in different ways. Products or product parts can be designed to fail reliably after a period of time, also known as physical, built-in, design or programmed obsolescence. Several cases have come to light recently thanks to whistleblowers, right to repair movements and consumer organizations such as ‘Halte a l’Obsolence Programmée’ who have filed class action lawsuits against manufacturers of consumer electronics. Apple and Samsung phones that were argued to be intentionally slowed down via software updates, forcing consumers to replace batteries or purchasing new phones. These companies faced lawsuits in Italy, France and Portugal over their alleged planned obsolescence strategies. In other cases, planned obsolescence is a more subtle strategy of perceived obsolescence, also known as psychological, or style obsolescence. This happens when consumers see product updates or new releases being hyped as more desirable, more aesthetic, more fashionable (or even more ‘ecological’) than the still perfectly functional product they already own.

France is the first and so far only country to have legally defined, prohibited and penalized l’obsolescence programmée via the Consumer Code. Manufacturers who are found guilty of ‘deliberately reducing the lifespan of products to increase the replacement rate can receive a fine of 300,000 euro (or up to 5% of the average yearly turnover of the last 3 years) or a 2 year prison sentence.

Policy makers are increasingly recognizing planned obsolescence for the unsustainable business practice it is. Initiatives in Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Finland and Austria have addressed it via policies about warranty, repairs, consumers rights or the circular economy. Yet, any sort of environmental policy that doesn’t take into account the purposefully designed premature lifespans of these products misses the elephant in the room. And consumer protection groups legitimately irate at usurious “subscription” models for services that are permanent, like software, but made scarce artificially, should investigate planned obsolescence to better understand the germ of such corporate behavior.

Our article, "Designed to break: planned obsolescence as corporate environmental crime,” recently appearing in the journal Crime, Law and Social Change, makes the case that planned obsolescence constitutes a corporate environmental crime. Based on various examples, we discuss the drivers and consequences of planned obsolescence by using corporate crime literature as a frame of analysis, integrated with insights from environmental philosophy, management sciences and law. We encourage criminologists and other scholars to investigate these business strategies not only per their unsustainability, but also their criminological relevance. (E-)Waste crime has long been established as a noteworthy topic, but planned obsolescence as the business strategy enabling excessive waste generation has not. By focusing on planned obsolescence, legal interventions and policy harmonization can take a public health approach of prevention to corporate environmental crime.

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