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Planned Obsolescence




FILAMENT-ARY, DEAR WATSON

If we had to choose an easy, single moment to start this story, we could start with our unassuming friend the light bulb. A tiny, blown glass canary in the coal mine which signaled the advent of a century of strategically planned poor product quality.


‘Planned obsolescence.’


Contemporary consumers might immediately think of their seemingly short-lived cell phones or televisions. The idea, though, has a history as old as modern capitalism’s birth alongside the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. It took time to develop, but as the 1920s became the 1930s several touchstone moments baked it into our economic cake.


The term itself is credited by the academy to real estate broker Bernard London’s 1932 essay ‘Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence.’ London didn’t suggest products themselves should wear out or break faster; rather, he proposed setting a legal usable life for manufactured goods, and simultaneously replacing the income tax with a tax on goods kept longer than their legal life. This, he hypothesized, would both maintain employment at maximum levels and keep the government funded through sales and luxury taxes.


A few years prior to London, to combat Ford’s saturation of the automobile market, competing manufacturers took a cue from bicycle makers and started designing new bodies for their vehicles. The outside was restyled, the technology inside remained generally the same. Suddenly, even though it worked just fine, your car might be out of fashion.


Our earliest case study begins still a few years prior to the auto industry shift.

That singular, fabled moment—the one most relevant to us as a light fixture manufacturing firm, and certainly the most nefarious sounding: the founding of The Phoebus Cartel. Or the Phoebus Society as they were known when incorporated in Switzerland. The Phoebus Cartel was a sinister sounding (by contemporary standards) conglomerate of light bulb manufacturers from Western Europe and the United States (through a British subsidiary) who joined forces in the mid 1920s.


The decades-old electric light revolution had led to mixed results on the ground. Many companies had tried to simply replace the gas light industry. Manufacturers converted fixtures in the home straight to electric with wildly varying design standards. Much like the glut of different USB cables and connectors on the market now, there was no universal fit. Homemakers were forced to creatively adapt newly electrified appliances like clothes irons into their light fixtures in order to use them.


The electric companies themselves had both control over the users’ home electric grid, and the responsibility to maintain those systems in customer homes. It was in those companies’ interest to make bulbs with an indefinite lifespan, even if their quality decreased to unusable levels over time. The industry was a sea of variability.


Enter Phoebus—named, of course, for the Greek god of light. Their goal: control the production and sale of incandescent bulbs in market territories they carved up around the world. As part of that process, they agreed among themselves to standardize light bulb life at 1,000 hours and set a fine for manufacturers who exceeded that life expectancy. Over several years of research and testing they were able to drop the life of a light bulb—from an unlimited number of hours to about 1,000, give or take. In short, they planned for it to fail earlier than before.


It certainly sounds conspiratorial, and on some fronts it probably was. The companies involved used mercenary business tactics to eliminate legitimate competition. Asian manufacturers were kept out of European and U.S. markets entirely as part of that process.

Conspiracy is harder to assert on the technological side. At the time, electric companies were permitted to advertise however they chose. They could advertise and sell a bulb that lasted 15,000 hours without explaining that its energy costs increased as the filament lost efficiency. Phoebus contended that standardization benefited the consumer—and despite inflation the price of bulbs did fall a substantial amount in the early to mid-20th century.


Although Phoebus didn’t officially dissolve until later, the group ceased operations at the outbreak of the Second World War as member organizations found themselves on opposing sides of the conflict. After the war, participating companies were brought before the court and governments here in the U.S. and across the Pond with differing results. In 1951 a British parliamentary commission dismissed accusations that Phoebus artificially limited lifespan of bulbs simply to increase sales, noting that the 1,000-hour standardization would have emerged eventually—and perhaps already had at the time—as it seemed to be the best available ratio of energy consumption to price. In the U.S., the companies involved had some charges dismissed, and in other cases were found guilty of exclusionary market practices under anti-competition laws.

Consensus regarding actual conspiracy was difficult to establish.


WE ARE THE GOON SQUAD AND WE’RE COMING TO TOWN (BEEP-BEEP)

As hinted earlier, though, manufacturing standards aren’t the only way to purposely create products that wear out sooner than later. In fact, it might be the more difficult road compared to strategies that developed as the century progressed.


By the late 1950s in the U.S., planned obsolescence was the de rigueur advertising tactic. Whereas consumers understood the term to mean products made cheaply and designed to fail, advertisers were focusing elsewhere: styling and fashion. That is, calculating the release of slightly different products to make customers feel out of step with current trends. It was a form of aesthetic obsolescence that preyed on consumer psychology.


Auto manufacturers might have started the ball rolling in culture at large—though remember, they took their cues from the bicycle industry—but the newly celebrated ‘industrial designer’ of the early 20th century elevated redesign as the chief tool of obsolescence. These new heroes streamlined the look of everyday products and justified their aesthetic choices to the public as increases in fashion or efficiency. Celebrated Modern designer Raymond Loewy was publicly clear, however, that the purpose of new designs was to generate a steady increase in sales.


As the postwar economic boom continued the period between new design releases shrank. The bellwether auto industry began releasing new model year designs annually instead of on three-year cycles. Industry spokesmen announced their goal to induce drivers to purchase a new car every year. The emerging youth market of the 1960s further embraced products designed to be disposable: paper clothing, pop songs, cardboard furniture. Avant-garde architects and critics even proposed off-the-rack homes with innards that would quickly become obsolete and need to be replaced. By then the consumer was fully trained to expect the newer, faster and better.


Which is perhaps where some—or all—of us are stuck today. While it may be difficult to single out a specific guilty party in all of this, we were born into a system of ever-increasing growth and turnover. Industries only had to stoke the flames of our built-in desires.


Thanks to online consumer reviews it’s a bit more difficult for many companies to get away with claiming a poorly made product will last a long time. The main approach remaining is to tickle our psychological funny bones.


And we play along. We buy in. We demand it even. We’re all guilty.


Well, the collective ‘we,’ that is. We the consumers.


IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS

The ‘we’ of the team here at Old California are in the business of thwarting the idea of planned obsolescence entirely when we craft our light fixtures. To accomplish that we have subscribed over several decades to two specific, in-house standards:


First, we research time-tested aesthetic ideals and iterate our designs in a long assessment process before we feel anything is ready to go public. If these historic designs were ever going to go out of fashion, they would have a long time ago. But they’re here to stay, and you never have to worry about feeling behind the times when we release new products.


Second, there are no replaceable parts in our fixtures. We’ve stripped the necessary components down to the essentials, even avoiding integrated LED systems to prevent failure of an inaccessible part found in other manufacturer’s lighting. Our Southern California factory is committed to producing pieces made from materials durable enough to outlast us all.


Wait.


Admittedly, that last point was a bit deceptive—sorry. There is one replaceable part in our light fixtures.


Did you guess?


That’s right:


The light bulb.


Planned Obsolescence


Written By: Old California
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