We Need to Reimagine How We Make and Use Products

Before the industrial revolution, products were hard to make. Materials were scarce, and things were made to last. If something broke you fixed it, until you salvaged what you could and built something else out of it. Take the Vikings, for example… they repurposed the wood from their ships into barns after crossing the sea because materials only had value if they were being used and if you no longer needed a ship, why not build a barn with the wood instead? 

The industrial revolution made it easier to mass produce products, and product value shifted from usage to consumption. All of a sudden, it was possible to make products for far cheaper, and businesses realised that by building inferior products that were thrown away after being used, they could get saturated markets to continue buying more of their products and increase profits.

Planned (or Built-in) Obsolescence  

One of the first examples of planned obsolescence was the Phoebus Cartel, a group of major light bulb manufacturers including Germany’s Osram, the Netherlands’ Philips, France’s Compagnie des Lampes, and the United States’ General Electric who colluded to purposefully reduce a light bulb’s lifetime to 1000 hours by the mid-20th century. Engineers, who knew how to create light bulbs that lasted for decades or even a century, were purposefully told to design inferior light bulbs. Over the following decades, the average lifespan of the light bulb decreased by over 1500 hours per bulb. To put this in perspective, Thomas Edison’s first commercial lightbulb, built in 1881 lasted 500 hours longer than a light bulb in the mid-20th century.

Diagram of Average Lifespan of the Lightbulb in the 20th Century: This graph, obtained from the Municipal Archive of Berlin, shows how the life span of the light bulb declined after the formation of the Phoebus Cartel, from an average of 1,800 hours in 1926 to 1,205 hours in fiscal year 1933–34.

The Documentary film The Light Bulb Conspiracy uncovers how planned obsolescence has shaped our lives and economy since the 1920’s, when manufacturers deliberately started shortening the life of consumer products to increase demand. The film also profiles a new generation of consumers, designers and entrepreneurs who have started challenging planned obsolescence as an unsustainable economic driver.

Other Examples of Planned Obsolescence

  • Car manufacturers introducing yearly changes such as car models or colours to entice consumers to buy a newer and ‘better’ car.
  • Fashion industry making poor quality items, so that within a matter of weeks or months, customers find new clothing coming apart at the seems, losing colour, or having soles coming off footwear.
  • Electronics manufacturers creating new and proprietary ‘plugs’ and ‘ports’ that require consumers to purchase adapters or new electronics altogether.

So how do we reimagine how we make and use products?

The first option, and one many agree is a step in the right direction, is to go back to making quality products, built to last, rather than products that are designed with obsolescence and expected to be thrown away.

The second option is what we are seeing in the right to repair movement, most notably in the recent executive order by US President Joe Biden. The executive order includes a provision directing the Federal Trade Commission to issue rules preventing manufacturers from imposing restrictions on independent device repair shops and DIY repairs. According to CNN Business columnist Clare Duffy, “While mobile phone manufacturers aren’t the only ones facing criticism for obstructing repairs, the order specifically calls them out for practices that make repairs more costly and time consuming.” 

An example of this type of repair obstruction is how Apple designs products with features to limit repairs, such as with the pentalope screws that are hard to remove with common tools. Another example are front loading washing machines which often have the drum bearing - a critical and wear-prone mechanical component - permanently moulded into the wash tub, or even have a sealed outer tub, making it impossible to renew the bearings without replacing the entire tub. The cost of this repair may exceed the residual value of the appliance, forcing it to be scrapped.[1]

Kyle Wiens, co-founder of online repair community iFixit, states that a possible goal for such a design is to make the cost of repairs comparable to the replacement cost, or to prevent servicing of the product at all.

In 2012, Toshiba was criticized for issuing cease-and-desist letters to the owner of a website that hosted its copyrighted repair manuals, to the detriment of the independent and home repair market.[2] 

The final frontier of reimagining products to be better for people and the planet is to use circular design. Circular design uses techniques like dematerialisation, which uses algorithms to minimise the use of raw materials while making the most durable products. Airframe manufacturers have been doing this for decades, but it is a technology that can easily be applied to other, more common, household products. Another function of circular design is to create modular components that can easily be repaired, reclaimed or recycled.  

Product manufacturers such as Dresden, an eyewear company, are a great example of circular product design. Their frames are made in local factories from recycled materials, and feature “Interchangeable and replaceable parts with high-quality lenses”. Dresden glasses are also backed by a 10 year unconditional frame warranty, which incentivises customers to bring their broken frames back to Dresden, where the broken parts can be replaced, and the unusable materials can be recycled.

Products as a Service

Now that we’re thinking more sustainably about products through the use of circular design, what if we changed the paradigm completely? What if we shifted the onus of product maintenance, upkeep and longevity to the manufacturer and sold those products as a service?

Companies like Signify are doing exactly that. Instead of selling light bulbs, they are selling ‘light as a service’. Just think about that for a moment. Remember how we spoke about the Phoebus Cartel, and their decision to reduce the number of hours their light bulbs lasted for? This was because their business was driven by price and consumption. If they made longer lasting light bulbs it would reduce their revenue. This is the problem with focusing on consumption as a driver of growth. By shifting to usage as a driver of growth, Signify now has an incentive to make longer lasting and more energy efficient light bulbs because they want to reduce the cost of repair and replacing their infrastructure.

This new model of ‘products as a service’ won’t work for many household products, but it could work for everyday items like appliances, computers, televisions and industrial equipment. It is already being used in specialist medical equipment, with companies like [name] selling ultrasound technology as a service.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things refers to the way everyday objects can be embedded with sensors, software and other technology to collect and exchange data about the ways in which they are used. For example, home security systems and doors that can be locked or open remotely from an app or washing machines and thermostats that record data about how much water or energy they are using so that customers are better informed and in control of their own homes. The Internet of Things is used in everything from healthcare environments to zoo ecosystem controls and is an incredibly valuable way for us to become better acquainted with our usage and consumption.

Putting it All Together

Reimagining products to be better for people and the planet doesn’t require a change to the way customers live, or change their usage habits. It just requires a shift in thinking about how we make and use products.

It requires more product manufacturers committed to:

-   Using circular design to create products built to last that can easily be repaired and recycled.

-   Close the loop on their products by creating incentives to repair, reuse or recycle.

-   Think about shifting the value proposition from consumption of their products to usage, including exploring subscription models to offer products as a service.

-   Collecting data on the usage and efficacy of their products so they can continue to refine those products to make them a delight for customers to use.

These product manufacturers are what we call Circulists—Entrepreneurs, Engineers, Scientists and Designers who are committed to making products that are good for people and the planet.



[1] Cooper, Daniel R.; Skelton, Alexandra C. H.; Moynihan, Muiris C.; Allwood, Julian M. (March 1, 2014). "Component level strategies for exploiting the lifespan of steel in products". Resources, Conservation and Recycling. 84: 24–34. doi:10.1016/j.resconrec.2013.11.014

[2] Wiens, Kyle. "The Shady World of Repair Manuals: Copyrighting for Planned Obsolescence". Archived from the original on March 27, 2014.

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