Recently, I posted about the problem of planned obsolescence, and how industry profits mightily by creating products with shorter than necessary lifespans in order to drum up repeat business. On one hand, this practice creates jobs for people who keep producing the items people need as the old ones wear out. On the other hand, it’s a bummer to have to replace broken things so often, and it’s a disaster for the environment. What can we do to change the situation for the better?
That question, or one like it, was on the mind of Frédéric Bastiat in 1850 when he wrote his famous essay, “Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas” (That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen). Bastiat tells the metaphorical story of a French shopkeeper whose son carelessly breaks a pane of glass in the shop window. This obviously represents a loss for the shopkeeper, but most people would note that even the window repairman needs to make a living, so it all balances out in the end. Bastiat, however, points out that this conclusion is a little too easy. What people miss is the opportunity cost; that is, what could the shopkeeper have done with the money he spent fixing the window, if the window had never been broken?
In this context, planned obsolescence can be thought of as “the window that breaks itself.” If you didn’t have to replace your sluggish, bloatware-filled computers and smartphones every couple years (how convenient that a new model is available!), what else could you do with that money? Perhaps you could buy something else. Perhaps you could work a little less, and take the savings in the form of time spent doing something you enjoy. Perhaps you are a low wage worker and don’t have that money or time in the first place, and the savings represents a lack of debt. In every example, there exists an opportunity: the thing that, as Bastiat explained, is not seen.
When we don’t have to keep replacing broken things, that frees up resources and labor to create more value that we didn’t have before, instead of racing to stay where we are. When you look at the world around you, do you see any number of things which need to be done, but which generally go undone or under-done, as there’s no profit in it? Every volunteer job comes to mind, from mentoring at-risk kids to cleaning up rivers to planting urban gardens.
Other unpaid or contribution-funded activities could replace items currently designed to break or become obsolete with durable goods designed to last. One example is open-source software. When there’s no profit motive behind creating programs that need constant replacing or updating, software can be robust and adaptable. (This post was written with the free, open source software Open Office.)
Repairing items that already exist is, perhaps intentionally, a pain in the neck, but with better-designed products, it doesn’t have to be. Learning to fix what you have is a way of recouping the cost so that you don’t have to buy the product again, and repair workshops can provide jobs for people whose previous jobs relied on planned obsolescence. The reduction of environmental damage from not trashing and replacing broken items would be huge.
Since most for-profit entities seem unlikely to embrace the end of planned obsolescence on their own, other solutions can be found in governmental mandate. In France, a 2015 law requires manufacturers to state up-front how long a product is designed to last and how long spare parts for that product will be produced. Consumers can then use that information to make better purchasing decisions, and hopefully items with a short life would be shamed out of the marketplace.
Finally, there’s something to be said for simply deciding that one doesn’t need so much stuff. A few well-made items designed to last can be an investment as well as a joy. Deciding to buy fewer yet better goods (or merely deciding to live without all the junk) can jumpstart the virtuous spiral out of planned obsolescence, and into a cleaner world, more time spent doing the things you want to do, and undoing the damage wrought by consumerism. If that’s not a worthy goal, I don’t know what is.