Born to Fail -- Products Designed to Break

Don't you hate it when something breaks just after the warranty runs out? Or what about that new electronic gadget that fails to work with your old accessories from the same manufacturer? Some of these infuriating problems were caused on purpose, by product designers practicing "planned obsolescence." More than a 10,000 Maniacs song, planned obsolescence occurs when something is intended to wear out or stop being useful after a predetermined period of time -- and that time is often as short as a few years.

Planned obsolescence isn't always easy to identify, since there can be many reasons why something becomes no longer useful, including technological irrelevance or changing social tastes. And some degree of planned obsolescence is probably necessary in many fields, through so-called "value engineering" (eg, a car would not be affordable if every part had to be made strong enough to last 100 years). But there are also ways manufacturers exploit planned obsolescence to make consumers buy more product, such as by purposefully making it difficult, or too costly, to make repairs, or by preventing backwards compatibility.

At least as early as the 1960s, critics have complained that planned obsolescence wastes consumers' money, uses up valuable resources and chokes our landfills. The issue has big environmental implications, because our insatiable appetite for stuff drives carbon emissions and pollution. (True, some have suggested that planned obsolescence could benefit the environment, if products were made to be easily recycled and/or upgraded as technologies progress, versus promoting the throwaway culture that we have now.)

Read on for some of the most egregious examples of planned obsolescence.

Ink Cartridges

A set of new inkjet cartridges can cost more than the printer itself...yet you may be prevented from using every expensive drop of pigment. Many ink cartridges come with proprietary smart chips on them that disable printing when one of the colors falls to a certain level, even if there's really enough ink to do the job. Plus, the smart chips can discourage refilling or use of third-party ink.

Each large laser printer cartridge requires about three quarts of oil and 2.5 pounds of plastic to make. Some water filters have similar technology that calls for replacement before the medium is necessarily used up.

Video Games

When the Super Nintendo (SNES) came out in the early 1990s, it made the earlier Nintendo Entertainment System obsolete. Yes, the processing power and other capabilities had increased, but the SNES also made the massive game library of the 8-bit console obsolete because it couldn't play the old cartridges. Those who wanted to play earlier games had to keep both systems around, and new customers had no option to try older, cheaper titles.

With a few exceptions, most video game systems have been designed to prevent backwards compatibility, in no small part to spur sales of the latest technology -- and new copies of the same old games.

Textbooks

Planned obsolescence isn't limited to electronic gizmos or complicated machinery. Even though not much changes from year to year for most core subjects, textbook publishers issue frequent updates. Trouble is, each new edition is usually printed with the information shifted to different page numbers, making it difficult to follow along in class with a previous volume. Textbooks are expensive, and publishers would better serve consumers by placing new information at the end, or by offering slim supplements.

By issuing new editions, publishers also suppress the used market. Still, some students are fighting back, and one can often find required texts at a fraction of the cost from places like Craigslist or Chegg.com.

Fast Fashion

One year fishnets are out, the next year they're in. Unless you have your own warehouse like Demi Moore, chances are good that you don't hang on to every piece of clothing you own to wait until acid wash comes back into vogue. Whether it's because of cuts, hemlines or colors, a lot of what is advertised and sold is designed to go out of style in a short time. As big-label designer Gary Harvey recently put it, "Too many garments end up in landfill sites. They are deemed aesthetically redundant and get discarded at the end of the season when there are often years of wear left."

Instead of buying the latest and greatest apparel, consider timeless classics. Vintage clothes are a great green choice, and offer nearly endless style possibilities. Avoid so-called "fast fashion," which is churned out quickly based on ephemeral trends and isn't designed to last. Finally, learn to mend the clothes you already have -- that's the greenest option yet!

Software

In software, as with video game hardware, many titles are incompatible with previous files or programs. This definitely gives consumers incentive to upgrade across the board. Many users are also forced to upgrade to new editions after publishers stop providing support to older versions. This is particularly effective for software in which copyright protection limits the amount of service third parties could perform.

The march of progress in software often drives hardware sales as well, since newer versions often require increasingly powerful machines. Microsoft's Windows, in particular, gets larger and hungrier for bits with each incarnation, forcing people to purchase faster computers.

Cars

Automakers are often accused of planned obsolescence for a variety of reasons. They routinely discontinue parts that could otherwise be made available for repairs. And they hew to a strict yearly cycle of model releases, often introducing purely cosmetic changes from one year to the next. Instead of sticking with hits and standardizing them over time, which would better support a repair aftermarket, car companies retire popular models and bring out something new every few years, making it harder to fix older vehicles.

Cars today are partly seen as fashion accessories, and a whole culture has arisen of keeping vehicles for only a few years, when it wouldn't be very difficult to extend the life. Cars take a lot of resources to produce, so adding a few years to every model's lifespan could have a big impact.

Consumer Electronics

Some have complained that cell phones seem to follow planned obsolescence, although it is also true that handsets endure heavy daily use, and often do wear out. Plus, cell phone technology has been proceeding apace, and new models typically offer substantially improved features. A more aggravating aspect of consumer electronics is planned obsolescence of proprietary batteries, especially the lithium-ion power packs found in mp3 players, laptops, cameras and many other devices.

In the worst case, such as with Apple iPods, the battery can't be removed easily by consumers, forcing an expensive service request when it runs out -- inconveniently priced just below replacement cost of the whole unit, and encouraging a throwaway mentality. Also, many batteries have integrated circuits on them that help regulate power. That can help reduce fire risk, but many are also set to disable the battery after a predetermined number of cycles, even if the life of the individual battery could go on for longer. In the case of laptops, new batteries can cost $75 or more, so extending the life is no trifling matter.

Light Bulbs

In a few museums, some of Thomas Edison's early light bulbs still glow, after more than 100 years. Yet contemporary bulbs seem lucky to last a year or two. Clearly, the technology exists to make light bulbs last longer, but that isn't exactly a profit motivator for manufacturers.

Yes, there are longer lasting light bulbs, particularly when it comes to fluorescent and LED technology, and companies often boast of this fact. But it's also true that many CFLs haven't lasted as long as advertised, and LEDs haven't been promoted as much as they could be.

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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.