Planned obsolescence

We talk of “planned obsolescence” to define the strategy adopted by the industrial economy, according to which the duration of consumer goods is limited to a preset period. After that time, the product becomes unserviceable or simply obsolete in the eyes of the consumer in comparison to new models on the market, which appear more modern although they are little or no better from a functional point of view. Planned obsolescence came into being with modern industrialism and the era of mass production of consumer goods, thus at the turn of the 20th century. At first, industrial production relied on quality to leverage the market, so robust materials were used, there was good manufacturing and optimal design. However, this did not last long: already in the early 1920s, it was realised that the products “lasted too long” and that this slowed down production at a time when factories were able to produce more and more objects, reducing the amount of human labour. Thus, owning a durable item was the main obstacle to growth of sales. Consequently, in 1924, light bulb manufacturers created the Phobos Cartel which, together with the standardisation of fittings, wattage and brightness, set the “ideal” duration of light bulbs – for companies, certainly not for consumers – at 1,000 hours, when it was already easy to produce bulbs that would last 2,500. The term “planned obsolescence” first appeared in literature in 1932, when real estate broker Bernard London proposed that it should be imposed on businesses by law so they could boost consumption in the United States during the Great Depression. It was thus that the consumer and throw-away society came about, disregarding the fact that, while the objects we use every day have a short life cycle, the materials from which they are made last much longer, to the point of being a permanent problem.
In the 1930s, when researchers at the chemical company DuPont succeeded in creating nylon, a very strong new synthetic fibre, it was used to make women’s stockings that were much more unlikely to ladder than the existing ones. Since the durability of the stockings was excessive and detrimental to business, DuPont instructed their technicians to make the fibre they had created weaker.

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