Let's Make Planned Obsolescence Obsolete

The Problem: We've Lost Our Emphasis on Quality

It’s almost a cliche today to discuss the issue of our modern “throw-away society.” Of course, cliches come into existence for a reason and just because a problem is discussed often doesn’t mean that it’s solved. Between 1905 and 2005 there was a ten-fold increase in product waste (packaging and old products) reported by New York City Waste Collections. An order of magnitude increase in garbage production in one lifetime is pretty incomprehensible. Products in use for less than three years make up 27 percent of that waste. While products in use for over 3 years only make up 16 percent. The issue comes down to quality. We’re producing shit that breaks fast on a clip that’s way faster than quality goods.

Even more disturbing is that organizations factor this into their business model. It’s more profitable to sell a product over and over than to sell something once. Someone even coined a term for it, “planned obsolescence.” There’s a literal bright, shining example of this at a firehouse in California. Hanging from the ceiling is an early incandescent light bulb that has been running 24 hours/day for almost 120 years. You can even watch the damn thing on a webcam. (Peep those Myspace-fresh animated gifs all over the page.. sexy.)

planned obsolescence light bulb

Quality Used to Matter to Us

Quality has likely been emphasized since the dawn of man, its value is self-evident. However, the western model of quality management seems to have been created around the 13th century. This is when groups called guilds started organizing to develop conventions and rules around product and service quality. Around the same time in Japan, swordsmiths were doing whatever they could to gain an edge (pun intended) in quality. There are wild accounts of smiths meditating under waterfalls for days to gain the purification of mind necessary to perfectly fold a blade’s steel. Badass.

The Party Won't Continue On Its Own

History provides plenty of examples of societies going backwards. The Egyptians constructed the pyramids at Giza, marvels of engineering that we would be hard pressed to replicate to this day. However, pyramids built after these got progressively worse. Like, way worse. It’s shocking and it serves as a reminder that things don’t just get better automatically. Things get better because a bunch of people work super hard to make them better. 

Same deal with the Roman aqueduct system. It's pretty incredible to see something get created through jaw-dropping innovation, only to be taken for granted then left to fall into disrepair. Here's an example of a Roman aqueduct that required massive effort to construct. The structure went neglected for so long that calcium deposits nearly choked it to the point of uselessness.

The Opportunity: Quality Wins Entrenched Markets

The best part about trying to do the right thing is that it tends to work in our favor. If a company is producing something with low quality, it might be able to boost its bottom line. That is, until someone comes along and offers a superior product or service. Paradigms like planned obsolescence only work as long as everyone in the market continues to play that game.

Take the example of Tesla Motors. A silicon valley startup is single-handedly turning the automotive industry on its head via one simple emphasis; product quality. The model 3 is the best selling car in its class because it is the safest car ever made. Compared to its competition, it's also more efficient, more comfortable, more stylish, oh yea and it drives itself. After a century of auto manufacturers releasing unsafe, inefficient vehicles in comes Tesla to disrupt it all. The Tesla example hasn't even made its way to maturity yet. Take a look at the chart below to get an idea of how an emphasis on quality can take a company from "unicorn" status to something else entirely.

planned obsolescence isn't used at Tesla

This opportunity exists in countless industries today, all it takes is someone dedicated to being better. Of course, it's easy to tell ourselves that we are producing quality in our endeavors. Very few of us are producing something while saying, "I'm going to do a shitty job at this task." So let's get into the nuts and bolts of how quality comes about.

How Quality Comes About in an Organization

There's an old adage, "As above, so below." The saying points to the fact that many large systems are the sum of its parts. If an issue is common in many parts of a system, it tends to manifest in the system as a whole. For example, Enron was an organization full of dishonest people. It's not surprising then, that the company was flagrantly cooking its books and lying to the market. As above, so below. This is a negative example obviously, but quality works in the exact same way. If everyone in an organization is obsessed with improving the quality of their contribution, the output will very likely be of outstanding quality. There is a simple question that should be asked individually, every single day.

How Can This Be Better?

It doesn't matter if you're a student, a writer, a furniture designer, or a fortune 500 executive. This question, if asked often enough, can set you apart from everyone. Not only that, if asked often enough and by enough people, it can change the world. We've seen the effect that not asking this question can have on societies. But imagine if this was an ingrained obsession held by everyone. Imagine what the world might look like. Let's make planned obsolescence obsolete.