The term wasn’t coined when WalMart decided to create a toaster that would break in 2 years or a lawn mower that would need to be replaced annually just because after you let it sit for the winter, you wouldn’t know exactly what to do to make it start again. Many are under the false impression that the American industrial designer Brooks Stevens coined the phrase “planned obsolescence”. The phrase was the result of a pamphlet written by Manhattan real-estate broker Jack London that was titled Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence (Slade, 2006: 73,152-3).
Stevens was giving a speech at an advertising conference in 1954 and introduced the idea that planned obsolescence constituted the mission of industrial design. The concept was that the buyer should have “the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, [and] a little sooner than is necessary” (cited in Slade, 2006: 153). The pamphlet includes such things like: “I would have the Government assign a lease of life to shoes and homes and machines, to all products of manufacture, mining and agriculture, when they are first created, and they would be sold and used within the term of their existence definitely known by the consumer. After the allotted time had expired, these things would be legally “dead” and would be controlled by the duly appointed governmental agency and destroyed if there is widespread unemployment. New products would constantly be pouring forth from the factories and marketplaces, to take the place of the obsolete, and the wheels of industry would be kept going and employment regularized and assured for the masses.”
The concept was for the government to decide how long your kitchen table should last. Stevens explained the system: “The people would turn in their used and obsolete goods to certain governmental agencies, situated at strategic locations for the convenience of the public. The individual surrendering, for example, a set of old dining room furniture, would receive from the Comptroller or Inspector of such a Station or Bureau, a receipt indicating the nature of the goods turned in, the date, and the possible value of the furniture (which is to be paid to him in the future by the Government). This receipt would be stamped in a receipt book with a number, which the individual would have received when he first brought in the obsolete article to be destroyed. Receipts so issued would be partially equivalent to money in the purchase of new goods by the individuals, in that they would be acceptable to the Government in payment of the sales tax which would be levied as part of my plan.”
Planned Obsolescence in its current form is for retailers to make sure you have to buy often by intentionally creating parts that will either wear out or break. Retailers even go beyond this approach by creating different models and fashions just so you will be compelled to buy the newest and latest item to use or wear. That means one of the things we really do have to work on is the basic approach to consumerism and the impact it has on our environment. Too often the subject is avoided because of the political pressure and the horror of being politically incorrect. This is a dialogue that MUST be included in the environmental movement or we will just be creating a layer of consumerism where people are convinced that they must buy the latest “Green Thing” because it makes them cool. As the current Green Market emerges, that seems to be holding true.
Our goal is to make 2012 a year of Rethinking the way we do things. Ready to take a class on toaster repair? Or how about how to replace the sparkplug on your lawn mower?
If you would like a copy of the Pamphlet that Stevens wrote, email us and we’ll send you a copy!