Each story has a beginning, but you can rarely put an exact date. The programmed obsolescence, incredible as it may seem, does have an exact starting point. On December 23, 1924, the main global manufacturers of light bulbs met in Geneva, among them companies such as Osram, Phillips or General Electric. There they signed a document committing themselves to limit the useful life of their products to 1,000 hours, instead of the 2,500 that they had until then. The reason, of course, was to achieve greater economic benefits. The first global pact was born to intentionally establish an expiration date for a consumer good.
This agreement formalized a new era of consumption. From then on, manufacturers incorporated a principle in their business model that was captured in a text by Printer's Ink magazine in 1928: "An article that does not wear out is a tragedy for business." In the fifties it was given a name: programmed obsolescence. In a US in full commercial expansion, industrial designer Brooks Stevens popularized the term, which eloquently defined: "Install in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little earlier than necessary" .
"That obsolescence was a model of middle classes, raised a general welfare, a more widespread consumption and not reduced to bourgeois circles", explains Luis Enrique Alonso, Professor of Sociology at the Autonomous University of Madrid and author of books such as The Era of Consumption . However, as the technology developed and reached higher levels of complexity, the obsolescence was separated from that naïve and positive vision of consumption available to all and economic growth to which no end was guessed. "Now it's a much more widespread and integrated phenomenon, it has become much more sibylline and powerful," says Alonso. The reason is no longer in consumer goods, but in our heads.
- Mental state: obsolescence
The German director Cosima Dannoritzer began working at the end of the last decade in a documentary that addressed the phenomenon of programmed obsolescence. "When I started to get interested in the subject, I thought I would find some companies that used this practice to earn more money, but I realized that it is something systemic, that our entire economy depends on it," he recalls. His documentary, Buy, Shoot, Buy, released in 2011, provided a global view of the dangers of this infinite cycle of consumption, and its consequences beyond our pockets.
We see as a right to throw an object that does not work
"The growth economy spreads a fear of getting out of that system," says Dannoritzer. "It seems that if that growth did not exist we would become poor, that we would not have work, almost like a return to the Middle Ages … but it is not true. There have been other systems before and there will be others later. " Luis Enrique Alonso confirms this phenomenon that several authors have called psychological or cognitive obsolescence. "There is a very strong threat discourse: individuals who will be left out of the functional system if they do not have certain products. Obsolescence no longer has that positive meaning of calling growth and well-being, but includes an element of exclusion. "
Advertising has played a key role in this change in our psyche that pushes us to want, for example, that new smartphone without even considering if the one we already have still works. "If you see ads from two or three generations ago, they sold that their product was better, that their car was faster, but now sometimes they do not even show you that product. They link the objects and the function they have to our insecurities, "explains Dannoritzer. "Within this context, we have accepted as something normal the fact of throwing an object when it no longer works. We see it as a right: I can throw it away and someone has to deal with that waste. And it's not so easy if we think about the future and what can happen to our planet. " The German director points to another consequence of obsolescence, perhaps the most pressing and threatening.
In 2025, 53.9 million tons of waste from electronic products will be generated, according to the International Bureau of Recycling. But much of that scrap is not in our sight, but in places like Agbogbloshie, an area near Accra (Ghana) that has become a huge dumping ground to which these phones, computers or appliances stop working and It was easier to replace than fix. Other countries such as Pakistan are the final destination of the 41 million tons of electronic garbage that we generate each year, according to the United Nations.
"The economy of growth and programmed obsolescence does not work in the long term because we can not always accelerate, there is a limit of resources, of energy," warns Dannoritzer. "It's a system that worked well in the 1920s, in the 30s, 40s … but it's not something that can be maintained. Either we run out of resources and energy or fill the planet with unnecessary garbage. " In his documentary Buy, pull, buy, the economist Serge Latouche, a supporter of the ideology of degrowth, expresses it in a more graphic way: "With the growth society we are all in a car that no one drives anymore, that is going full speed and whose destiny is a wall. "
The fight begins with the design of things that can be fixed
"The programmed obsolescence is closely related to the growth model, which is a predator of the environment," says Luis Enrique Alonso. "It gives the impression that if more restrictive measures are introduced, growth slows down, something that may have a political cost," continues the professor of Sociology. "Every time we have more references and possible models of coexistence, more rational and sustainable and, however, reigns the short term of economic policy, which only takes GDP growth as a reference. The survival of economic policies and the governments themselves are governed by these indicators. "
"The fight already begins with the design of the products, with getting them to design things that can be fixed", defends Cosima Dannoritzer. "For example, it is very difficult for you to change a computer battery yourself now. We should also have more information. Have, among others, a label that tells you how long a product lasts, or how much energy has been used to make it. We should have that right. "
When the light bulb manufacturers met in Geneva in 1924, one of those simple light sources had been lighting up a fire station in Livermore, California, for 23 years without interruption. Today, that light bulb is still lit 117 years later, turned into a local tourist attraction, but also in the symbol of the possibility of creating much more enduring products than dictates the obsolescent market.
"A new social pact is necessary in which more rational rules of the game are included, and it does not seem that the final consumer is the one who has to fix all the mess," Alonso explains. The truth is that awareness of the effects of obsolescence is growing, not only among citizens. France is the country of the European Union that has taken more seriously the fight against obsolescence, establishing penalties of up to two years in prison and fines of 300,000 euros to companies that violate consumer laws.
Laetitia Vasseur is the co-founder of HOP, an acronym for Halte à l'Obsolescence Programmée (Stop for planned obsolescence). His organization has worked as a lobby for lawmakers and companies to reject an economic model based on producing tremendously perishable objects. "Before the last elections in France, we asked all candidates about their programmed obsolescence program," says Vasseur. "Now we work together with the Government to promote circular economy initiatives."
One of the demands of HOP is that manufacturers offer more information about their products to the consumer. "Above all, that the durability of these consumer goods is revealed, so that the consumer can compare and choose those products that last longer," continues Vasseur. "This proposal was approved by the Government and now we are working on its implementation."
In other cases, its action is even more direct. Earlier this year, HOP sued various technology manufacturers, including Apple and Epson. The printer company is accused of causing their machines to stop working intentionally by introducing a chip that limits their useful life, something that was also expressed in the documentary Buy, pull, buy. "We want this type of company to react and change its policy," says Vasseur. "And we are beginning to see a change in mentality in many of them."
"In Spain, little has been done to combat this practice"
"In Spain, little has been done to combat this practice," explains Enrique García López, of the communication department of the OCU. The Organization of Consumers and Users has launched an information campaign against what they call premature obsolescence, with advice for the user to avoid it. "For example, that they choose products designed in such a way that there are no pieces of poor quality, or that the price of consumables is not higher than that of the new product". Other associations, such as the Catalan Millor Nou [Mejor que nuevo], promote the repair of appliances and the exchange as an alternative to generate more technological waste.
This circular economy is one of the initiatives that are also being supported by the European Union. According to the European Parliament, technology brands must allow the pieces of their products to be removed to be replaced; for example, mobile batteries. It also raises the creation of a label for products easy to repair. However, at a time when the life of the devices is reduced every year, it does not seem like an easy task.
While legislation moves in parallel to public awareness, every decision matters. "I always say that everyone can change small things," says Cosima Dannoritzer. "If I keep my mobile phone for another year, it will not ruin my life, and if we all do the same, we would throw away less mobile phones." It is no longer just something that affects our domestic economy, but perhaps our survival.