Planned Obsolescence, the intentional limiting of product lifespans, forces us to consume more than strictly necessary. With reference to energy saving light bulbs, is this a cynical ploy by the industrialists or a mechanism for maximising consumer choice?

Planned obsolescence is a business strategy, that has been around since at least the 1920s, in which the obsolescence (the process of becoming unfashionable or unusable) of a product is planned and built into it from its conception. This is done so that in the near future the consumer feels a need to purchase new products and services that the manufacturer brings out as replacements for the old ones.  Is this a cynical ploy by manufacturers or sound business for us and the economy as a whole?

Let’s look at one of the most famous examples of the existence of planned obsolescence.  Though, to be fair, the existence of planned obsolescence is not particularly controversial.  This concept is regularly taught in most university design courses.  It’s the motives of this policy that really is.  The famous example of planned obsolescence is the humble light bulb.  The first light bulbs Thomas Edison, the grandfather of electricity,  made were designed to be build to last.  However, this posed a problem to the industrialists who said, “this just won’t do, what will we do with our massive, production line now.”  There are 2 options to maintain “economic vitality” by maximising consumerism: go to war (destroy your output rapidly) or “planned obsolescence” (destroy output slowly but surely).

Basically, consumerism is good.  It drives the global economy, as long as you believe the simplistic assumptions of Twin Deficit Theory are true:

Y = C + S + T

where Y is GDP (money), C is consumption, S is savings, and T is taxes.

By this oft-cited logic, Consumption, my friends, is the way forward to prosperity.  Consumption = money creation, thus consume more…

The grass is always greener, allegedly, on the other side.  So, is it true, “they just don’t make them like they used to”?  Well, check out this article by the U.K.’s Daily Mail:

Light fantastic: World’s oldest lightbulb still burning bright after 109 years

The pertinent point, for me, in this story that validates the claim that the technological know-how to make bulbs long-lasting has long existed is: “During it’s first 75 years it was connected directly to the 110 Volt city power”.  This implies that this particular bulb was running successfully at full output for 75 years.  If they could do that over a century ago, why can’t we, with are advanced materials technologies, do the same or better?  Why can’t we these days buy any of these super, long-lasting bulbs?

So, in this advanced age what can we purchase? Currently, in Australia, you can really only purchase compact, fluoroescent (CF) bulbs as we’re forced to by Prime Minister Gillard.   The government forcibly phased out traditional incandescent, tungsten bulbs.  The new CF bulbs were ostensibly brought in to help our Greenhouse emissions and increase energy efficiency.  They generally last 8,000 Hours, perhaps 8x longer than incandescents.  However, when I was, as I always seem to be, in my local hardware store buying more bulbs and did the math, I noticed the $/Hr duration didn’t stack up.  The $28 cost was more than 8x that of traditional bulbs.  Yes, you may save on electricity, but, let’s face it the quality of light is more important.  Fluoros, even of the compact variety, are dreadful.  They give a “cool”, blue light which is “cold” and soleless.  That’s on top of the fact they contain toxic mercury.  We want “warm”, orangey lighting in our houses.  Sadly, however, the Australian government has forced us on the High Street to buy “cold” CF lights, the consumer choice was taken away.  It was mandated, not a natural progression dictated by market economics improving efficiency.

The government has legislated “Global Warming” mitigation through the general use of energy efficient, CF bulbs.  There is an alternative though if you search a bit harder; especially on the web.   You can get yourself a true eco-bulb.  How about a LED bulb for $10 that lasts 50,000 hrs? Sounds pretty reasonable to me.  To top it off, you save half again on electricity while you’re at it.  They are cool to the touch during operation, which means all the electricity used goes into light energy (not waste heat).

Fair enough, every cloud has a silver lining, so to speak.  This may not be the perfect solution for all of us.  If, like myself you don’t like the nasty, “cool” colour, blue tinge of a cheap LED like this (and most Compact Fluoros), is there still another alternative out there?  Fortunately, by the miracle of modern science the answer may be yes.  You can purchase yourself a pleasant, “warm”, old school, incandescent 60W bulb for $2.17.  This bulb differs from its standard incarnation in that it lasts a wonderful 20,000 hours instead of the normal, planned obsolescent, 1,000 hour warranty.  Now, that sounds like a bargain to me.  Why didn’t the Australian government “save the planet” by introducing truly eco-bulbs like this?  Well, true, there is no electricity saving with these type of long-lasting bulbs.  However, from a consumer’s perspective, you do get a product that is pleasant, doesn’t need changing for years on end and is comparatively very cheap.  Mee thinks there’s a bulk purchase from the States in order…


Planned Obsolescence is the intentional limiting of product lifespans.  As the majority of manufacturers actively employ this practice, we, the consumers, have little choice in the matter.  We are given little choice but to consume more than we strictly necessarily need.   The real question is, “is this a cynical ploy by the industrialists or a mechanism for maximising consumer choice by allowing us to frequently “upgrade” our products?”  Well, in my opinion, if the upgrade gives us a better experience and, in addition, was not forced, then I’m all for it.  For instance, if you can buy a new computer with a fancier screen and better graphics while your old one was still working happily, then the choice is yours.  However, as many have found, with not only light bulbs but a large swathe of modern commodities, your product dies on you relatively too soon.  Your forced to buy a new model, which is often only imperceptibly better, if at all.   Therefore, are you really given free will in the matter?  It seems like an inefficient, waste of money to me, money that is better spent elsewhere.

Thus, planned obsolescence is not intrinsically bad for consumers, it can encourage us to “upgrade” our products to the latest model and the high production volumes keeps prices down.  However, there can be rorting of the system.  Important commodities, such as the light bulb, are necessarily perishable, but they have bee made to be so.  The manufactures are possibly milking us to pay again-and-again for something we’ve already paid for.  We don’t need “upgraded” light bulbs, we just need them to do what they reasonably and easily can do, last longer.



Further Reading

For a great, little “Light Bulb Buying Guide” that concisely compares the pros-and-cons of lighting technologies, check here


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5 Responses to Planned Obsolescence, the intentional limiting of product lifespans, forces us to consume more than strictly necessary. With reference to energy saving light bulbs, is this a cynical ploy by the industrialists or a mechanism for maximising consumer choice?

  1. Joe Swinn says:

    It’s not a pretty situation, Jimbo – and I still find it amazing about that 100 year bulb still going – my last bulb lasted a matter of weeks! Although (as you said) it helps with the upgrading of products, and keeping technology up-to-date, we’re really starting to see the decline of High Quality goods (especially as their price tag goes up with less of them there). How do we solve it though? Any ideas? I’d be glad to add your thoughts in my article on it: – email me, and I’ll add your ideas in my post!

  2. Jimbo says:

    Greetings, Joe,

    That 109 year light-bulb is a “shining example to us all”… that without planned obsolescence Osram may well have gone out of business years ago.

    The telling part of the firestation, ancient, bulb story is that “During it’s first 75 years it was connected directly to the 110 Volt city power”. It’s running on a few watts now, to be sure, to be sure, but it was properly hammered for a wee longer than the bulb industry “agreed” 1000 hours.

    BTW I put a $9, compact, fluoro in the study yesterday and it just blew – doh.

  3. Pingback: Built to Fail – Effects of Self-Expiring Products « Hardware « Technology « Insights « Shrewsbury-Allen

  4. Joe Swinn says:

    Sorry to hear about your new bulb! I’ve updated my article to include your thoughts, and I’ve linked to this post. Don’t worry – I’m not asking for a link back!
    Cheers again for the article,

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