Planned Obsolescence vs Circular Economy


There are more and more companies out there that are investing millions in R&D and production process renovation to deliver on the “closing the loop” with Technical or Biological cycle promise. The challenge is that the average end user doesn’t know about it, and doesn’t even understand why he should care. This is where marketing has to come in. The work has been done at the production end, and there is a real need to change the dialogue and make eco-effectiveness of the product a key part of its salability. Marketing created the consumer economy; it can help save it as well! It’s only through informing end users of the added value of eco-effective products, through traditional and new marketing channels, that companies that are making this investment can reap the benefits and succeed in their markets.

We just watched a documentary, called “The Light Bulb Conspiracy”, that was equal parts fascinating and disturbing. It examined the fact that many manufacturing companies have been engineering and producing their products with a built-in termination date in mind since the mass production of the light bulb in the 1920s. This is the concept of “planned obsolescence”, which is still very much in evidence in today’s manufacturing.

In the 1920s, of course, there was less sense that global resources had any chance of running out. In fact, the very opposite appeared to be true, with personal wealth on the rise, and more and more manufacturing processes seeming to make goods faster and more cheaply. There was nothing stopping a total focus on cheap, disposable products that could be enjoyed now, and ordered in a different color or style soon afterwards.

Today, the reality and legacy of that is obvious. While many economists still claim that planned obsolescence is the only way to guarantee a thriving global economy, the amount of waste generated by the prevailing production models is appalling. Waste is being generated at alarming rates, and dumped in developing countries, out of sight of the spending consumers. The documentary mentioned included a profile of a Ghanaian man who is in the middle of a massive project to catalog all of the electronic waste that ends up in dumps and landfills in his country, to bring a lawsuit ultimately against the companies that dump their waste there as part of a “second-hand goods” export scheme.

The main counterargument against this negative, wasteful process is: consume less. Reduce usage. Stop buying. While it is perhaps a wonderful idea that people will automatically cut back their own personal usage of products for an abstract concept like saving the planet, it is just that: an idea. Importantly, it just doesn’t make economic sense. Focusing on negative words like “Stop, reduce, decrease” makes people feel bad, while buying and consuming products has been designed by skilled propagandists over nearly a hundred years of practice to make people feel good.

What if you could combine the two? Buy and consume as much as you like, and feel good about it, because you know the products you are buying weren’t ending up in landfills, polluting the world? Wouldn’t that make you potentially buy more, and pay at least a little more for what you get? This is where the Circular Economy, Closing the Loop, Cradle to Cradle concepts come in. When you buy a product that is created following this philosophy, you know that only positive waste is created (waste becomes food), no matter when its obsolescence is planned. This means that all the waste products that come from both the production cycle and the product itself become part of “the harvest” and then go back into the production process, and essentially nothing ends up as waste.

When you’re promoting a closed loop product, you need to communicate why it adds value. By doing that, you’re not just going to sell more products, you’ll be changing the dialogue and setting the new standards.

 Planned obsolescence vs Circular Economy