History of Planned Obsolescence

1850s onwards: The industrial revolution combined with rapid population growth produced a ‘consumer’ class for comparatively well-engineered products. Many maintainable by ordinary people. Pocket watches (Fobs) for example. This helped create a ‘consumer’ class. Waste was seen as valuable with people making a living as ‘rag pickers’

The Bone Grubber, a daguerreotype c1850 by Richard Beard

By the end of the century unrepairable products (for instance, pocket watches) were offered at lower prices than reapirable products. Otten sealed tight, so could not be opened and inspected when things went wrong. Designed to be thrown away and replaced with a new one.

1908 Henry Ford produces the first reliable, easily maintained, mass-market motorised transportation – a universal car, the Model T. Costing around the same as a modern Electric car does today, it was sold as “the only car you would ever need or want”. It came with a detailed service manual, enabling the buyer to maintain it themselves. Ford sold spares inexpensively. For those not able to maintain it themselves, a network of garages sprung up to keep the car going at reasonable cost.

1924 The American car market is saturated so sales plummet. General Motors executive Alfred P. Sloan adopts the bicycle industry’s approach – a new replacement model every year so people buy more. Smaller manufacturers could not afford to do it and Henry Ford did not like it but by 1931 GM was the largest supplier. Basic design was changed to support constant re-skinning. The tactic spread to the entire US economy until the Japanese in the 1960s and 70s introduced more durable cars..

1925 The Phoebus Cartel was inaugurated by Philips, Osram, General Electric, Associated Electrical Industries and others to agree on the ideal lifespan of light bulbs, reducing it from 2,500 hours to 1,000 and fining each other for exceeding the limit.

1927 Christine Frederick, a leading editor of ‘Home Efficiency’ publications for women, promoted the ‘scientific’ approach to manufacturing of one of the first Management Consultants, Frederick W Taylor. She evangelised planned obsolescence as a kind of ‘creative waste’. It kept the industrial economy afloat. Long-lasting products caused harmful market saturation.

1932 Bernard London publishes “Ending the depression through planned obsolescence“ call for legislation to impose obsolescence on personal-use products to stimulate and perpetuate new purchases

1954 Brooks Stevens, a leading American industrial designer, presents advertisers with a rationale for planned obsolescence through advertising: “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”

1989 Flagship Zara opens. New York Times coins the term “fast fashion” to describe what they do 

1996 IKEA launch the Chuck Out Your Chintz campaign in the UK, equating women’s equality with the freedom to replace old-fashioned stuff with modern versions for reasons of style.

2001 Apple launches the iPod. It has a non-replaceable battery that lasts around 18 months.

2012 Aimed at the automotive industry, the landmark Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act is passed into Massachusetts state law – a first for the USA. Amendments in 2020 close some loopholes in the original law.

2013 Dutch company Fairphone releases a smartphone that is sustainable and ethically produced, modular, repairable, and upgradable.

2013 Patagonia introduces Worn Wear – used clothes for sale online.

2015 Apple introduce proprietary screws into their product line. Library of Congress ruled in favor of repair-related exemption in DMCA – things you are not allowed to fix.

2017 Sweden provides tax breaks on repairs (half the labour cost back) to everything from bicycles to washing machines so it makes less sense to throw out old or broken items and buy new ones.

After many complaints about PC printer manufacturers locking people in to overly expensive print cartridges, a landmark court case taken to the US Supreme Court confirmed that reselling and refurbishing products was legal.

2018 The DCMA Act makes it “unlawful to circumvent technological measures used to prevent unauthorized access to copyrighted works” which is taken to include hardware.

2018 IKEA commits to becoming a circular business by 2030, by eliminating waste and reusing resources. A limited number of other major businesses follow.

2019 Having lobbied about “safety” and “hacking,” Apple U-turn to offer to supply spare parts to independent repair businesses provided they have a technician certified through Apple and sign an onerous contract

2020 Manufacturer John Deere added software locks to try to prevent farmers fixing their own tractors. This led to the widespread availability of hacked firmware to gain access.

2021 France brings a repairability index into legislation. It ranks products according to ease of fixability, aiming for a 60 percent repair rate for electronics within five years. A durability index is planned for 2024.

2021 The New York Senate passes right-to-repair legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support. U.K. Right to Repair regulations (based on EU trailblazing) in effect.

US President Joe Biden issues a right-to-repair executive order encouraging the Federal Trade Commission to force manufacturers to enable consumers to repair their own goods.

2022 New York State introduces The Digital Fair Repair Act

For related information, check out our page on the Right to Repair.