The New Engineer

Citation: This is article was published as Sharon Beder, "Is planned obsolescence socially responsible?", Engineers Australia, November 1998, p. 52.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

In the 1930s an enterprising engineer working for General Electric proposed increasing sales of flashlight lamps by increasing their efficiency and shortening their life. Instead of lasting through three batteries he suggested that each lamp last only as long as one battery. In 1934 speakers at the Society of Automotive Engineers meetings proposed limiting the life of automobiles. These examples and others are cited in Vance Packard's classic book The Waste Makers.

By the 1950s planned obsolescence had become routine and engineers worried over the ethics of deliberately designing products of inferior quality. The conflict between profits and engineering objectives were apparent. The fear of market saturation seemed to require such methods to ensure a prosperous economy, yet the consumer was being sold inferior products that could have been made more durable for little extra cost.

In an editorial in Design News toward the end of the fifties, E. S. Safford asked whether engineers should resist the philosophy of planned obsolescence if their management commissioned a 'short-term product' and argued that they should not: "Planned existence spans of product may well become one of the greatest economic boosts to the American economy since the origination of time payments." What was required, he argued was "a new look at old engineering ethics". Instead of trying to build the best, the lightest, the fastest and the cheapest, engineers should be able to apply their skills to building shoddy articles that would fall apart after a short amount of time, all in the interests of the market.

The editorial prompted a wide response. Several engineers wrote in to add their agreement. According to Packard, "the majority of engineers and executives reacting to the editorial, however, seemed angry and bewildered. They appeared to have little enthusiasm for the 'new ethics' they were being invited to explore." They objected because planned obsolescence gave engineering a bad name, because it cheated customers who were not informed of the death-date of the product, and because it directed creative engineering energies toward short-term market ends rather than more lofty and ambitious engineering goals.

Today when protecting the environment is such a priority goal, the question of product life and durability is again a critical question. Clearly the rate at which modern societies turn over equipment, automobiles, white goods and other items has a cost both in terms of resource use as well as waste and pollution. Yet our economic systems still seem to rely on the consumption that this constant turnover requires.

In August this year the business magazine Fortune reported on how planned obsolescence is becoming "increasingly sophisticated". In a column, Paul Lukas describes how "many manufacturers, no longer content to spur repeat sales simply by making consumer goods that break down or wear out, now offer products that tell the consumer when they're breaking down or wearing out." For example, Gillette's new shaving cartridge has a blue stripe that fades indicating it needs replacing, whether it does in fact or not. In InfoWorld magazine columnist Ed Foster suggests that the computer industry often makes relatively recent computer systems obsolete by discontinuing parts or accessories for them.

In 1994 Management Accounting invited readers to respond to a case study in planned obsolescence. The accounting people whose responses were published were opposed to redesigning a durable quality product to have a shorter life. However they weren't so much concerned about the ethics of planned obsolescence so much as the possible outcomes for the hypothetical company cited in the case study, which had a solid reputation for high quality products. They warned of the poor public and customer relations that could follow and questioned the wisdom of large investment in redesign of a good product rather diversification of products.

There is a fundamental ethical question involved in designing a death-date into products that goes beyond that of informing consumers. It is about the social responsibility of creating products that have short lives and therefore increase the burden on the planet. The role of engineers in product design is often central. Should engineers be aiming to design more durable commodities?