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Why the Things We Own Don’t Work as They Should

Photo taken by Daniel Herron on Unsplash.

Last updated on April 4, 2023

The word “cartel” strikes fear into the hearts and minds of many. It is not pleasant nor celebratory, used to describe some of the worst kinds of people in the world: those with no consideration for how their peddling impacts communities instead focus on profit. While this rings true for drug cartels, we should all worry about a different cartel. This cartel has affected almost everyone, and with a name like the Phoebus cartel, it strikes fear into the heart of many. What is it that they commodify, you may ask. The answer is lightbulbs. 

As shocking as that might be, it’s not uncommon. But uniquely, the Phoebus cartel’s reach was global, comprised of the three largest light bulb manufacturers. They worked to rationalize having lightbulbs with lifespans shortened from 2,500 hours to 1,000 hours. The cartel argued that it allowed the light to be brighter and with higher quality. Truthfully, it was because the cartel members observed fewer sales before the change. Ultimately, the cartel was dissolved during World War II but not before years of high-priced sales for low-priced products. Still, this realization by companies that if their products are less permanent people will find themselves forced to buy more, would not end with the Phoebus cartel. Instead, it would give birth to a driving force in capitalist systems and a technique that would only carry on that legacy. 

This technique is known as planned obsolescence. Better known as a strategy in which companies and manufacturers conspire to ensure their products will cease to function or become out of date within a certain period to force an increase in sales. Important to note is that this practice is done with deliberate intentions even before a product makes it onto the market. It is not to be confused with innovating or forcing a product to become obsolete to make room for a better one. For example, if a baker learned that there was a way to make bread taste better by using yogurt and changed all their recipes to include it, that would be an innovation. But if that same baker learned that using milk in bread would make it last half the time and began to use that technique to force consumers to buy more, that’s planned obsolescence. 

This nefarious practice often occurs with personal electronic devices. Because Apple decided to use this strategy, Batterygate was born. In early 2016, claims about the decreased reliability of older iPhones began to appear. It took until November for Apple to claim it was a minor issue, despite how widespread it was. Hoping to fix the problem with minimal outcry, Apple released the iOS update 10.2.1. This update was shrouded in secrecy but was ultimately effective at preventing the shutdowns. The only issue was that a new problem began to arise: the performance of these devices drastically decreased. And this was because the problem was with the battery, not the software in the phone itself.

Essentially, Apple was trying to use a bandaid to fix a bullet hole, and they got exposed for it in a Reddit post. Following this, lawsuits began to pile up, forcing Apple to admit to its wrongdoing. But it wouldn’t be until March 2020 that Apple agreed to pay over $500 million to settle the lawsuits. And $113 million more in November 2020 to a lawsuit arguing the slowdowns were intentional.

Whether intentional or not, the issue lies in the fact that Apple should be able to differentiate between a software problem and a hardware problem. Suggesting the former to fix the latter creates new problems. These problems make consumers think their devices are no longer usable, prompting them to buy new technology when they don’t even need it. In addition to lightbulbs and cell phones, planned obsolescence is a “feature” of many modern appliances. Ryan Finley, an appliance technician, claims that in the 1950s, appliances could last around 40 to 50 years. Now that timeframe has been shortened to just about 10 to 15 years. Finley attributes this to a lack of competition as Whirlpool and Electrolux manufacture the majority of appliances used today. When companies such as these have monopolies, it means that all the options you thought you had are only two. And of those options, neither one uses particularly quality parts designed for success. 

One cannot claim that planned obsolescence is solely the fault of industries and those producing products. Consumers often seek out the cheapest alternatives to avoid high fees upfront. Following basic economics, if demand calls for inexpensive products, creating something that will last a while is not cost-effective. Also, consider the materials for a product that will last years are more expensive than one that only needs to last a few months, a dichotomy that creates the perfect environment for companies to make themselves more profitable. This perspective is critical in proving why this issue will never end. If consumers buy inexpensive products while producers have found a way to create those products, there is a perfect match. 

Similarly, the constant turnover of new products is beneficial. It opens up vast job opportunities that would otherwise be lost and lets consumers indulge in items they would’ve only dreamed of having. In the 1950s, not everyone on the street had access to a washing machine. But now, with drastically lowered prices, many families are able to purchase one. 

Now that humanity is more connected than ever with technology, if a company seems to make particularly cheap products, unhappy consumers will inform the world about it via the internet. Whether or not others care about quality is a different situation. Ikea serves as a great example of this. We all know it has somewhat cheap furniture, and while it has gotten better in the recent past, the cheapness is part of the appeal. Sure, it won’t last for decades like a well-built piece of solid wood furniture might. Still, for people  on a low budget or seeking something that can be temporary, Ikea is a haven. 

At the same time, there is still hope. The first example of planned obsolescence through the Phoebus cartel has been slowly changing as L.E.D. lights proliferate. Advertised as both long-lasting and bright, L.E.Ds have made incandescent lights practically obsolete, but in a good way. However, this has been causing problems for the producers again as supply surpasses demand. The amount of incandescent light bulbs in the world is not infinite. It seems the only way forward is to create even better L.E.D lights with the claims of lasting 10,000 hours at 60 watts. Even this solution isn’t ideal because cheaper lights from other countries have lower prices than those allowed in the United States. All this is to say that even possible solutions ultimately fail in a capitalist system where the balance of supply and demand reigns supreme.

Maybe one day we will live in a society where nothing is left to produce that will change. But that might not happen until no one is left to consume. 

When considering the concept of planned obsolescence, it’s important to remember that the outcomes have benefited and harmed us all. On the one hand, it has forced us to replace appliances and technology and serves as a further example of capitalist manipulation. But on the other hand, it shows that sometimes the cheap option is the only workable solution. Born of the result of capitalism, primarily focused on the supply and demand of producers wanting to save money, and consumers hoping to save money, planned obsolescence fulfills both ends.

Even possible solutions to solve this are proven not to fit the criterion criteria designed to make planned obsolescence obsolete. When manipulations in the system increase and cartels start forming, we have a problem. But until that forms, you can lay back on your Ikea couch and relax, because the Apple Cartel isn’t here yet. And hopefully, that gate will never open.

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