Planned Obsolescence: A Lament for Quality Amid a World of Junk

Our family recently camped for a week in a nearby state forest where our most trusted item was a cast-iron frying pan. Its thickness distributes heat evenly. Nothing can harm it. The wrong kind of spatula won’t scratch some special non-stick coating.With simple care, it will last for a thousand years. Which reminded me how rare that combination of high quality and durability is today.

Most everything else I own is junk and seems to be designed that way. Here are several anecdotal examples:

In the old days, most Americans rented phones from the phone company (“Ma Bell”). My parents still own one, now over 30 years old, that survived raising three boys. These phones lasted forever. Meanwhile, Ma Bell was broken up in the 1980s. One engineer who worked for the phone company before and after the breakup told me of how the engineers were gathered together and given new ground rules: “It was all well and good in the old days to make phones with gold-plated contacts. But now it’s different. Here’s how to make the newer phones…” I think back on this comment as I watch one phone after another die, often after a few months.

I once helped my uncle select a new laser printer for his small business. The printer was a Laserjet 5 made by Hewlett-Packard. That was 15 years ago; the printer still works beautifully. It is made of metal and feels robust. In contrast, current printers, whether from HP or anyone else, feel like plastic junk. Whenever I open a compartment on my current printer, I worry that I will snap off a piece of the case and break it beyond repair.

Many iPhone models cannot have their battery replaced.

My less anecdotal example is textbooks. A standard introductory college physics textbook is Young and Freedman’s University Physics. Why is it in its 12th edition? In the 55 years since it was first published, has introductory college physics changed so significantly and so frequently? Hardly. Almost every idea taught in introductory physics has remained unchanged since the 1930s when quantum mechanics was developed. Indeed, the masterwork in this genre, Feynman’s famous Lectures on Physics was published in 1964 and is still mostly in its original form (there are two newer editions incorporating corrections provided by readers worldwide).

The reason for the 12 editions of Young and Freedman’s University Physics, as for most textbooks today, is planned obsolescence. Textbook publication contracts usually have a clause roughly along the following lines:

You agree to revise the book upon written request from us (the publisher). If you do not agree, we may select an author and pay them from your royalties. The payment will not exceed 25 percent of the royalties for the first revision, 50 percent for the second revision, and 75 for the third revision (and all the royalties for fourth and subsequent revisions).

The original author may be unwilling to do a revision, either because he or she has died or otherwise has no time. The publisher invites another author to make the revision, and voila, a new edition with a longer author list is created.

Best of all, the new edition is not available on the used-book market! Therein lies the publisher’s reason for the new edition: to force students to buy a new book rather than to “recycle” by buying a used copy. Often the newer edition will be nearly identical to the previous edition, except for reordering and renumbering the end-of-chapter problems. Therefore, homework assignments with lists of problems based on one edition cannot be used for a different edition. Conscientious professors will provide multiple problem numbers based on edition. However, after a few editions even the most conscientious will give up tracking the changes and simply require students to buy the current edition.

This deliberate generation of waste might have amazed and shocked our scholarly colleagues from medieval times. In medieval England, a book cost about $10,000 (in 2011 dollars) [H. E. Bell, The Price of Books in Medieval EnglandLibrary s4-XVII (3):312-332 (1936)]. This cost makes sense: Copying a book by hand might take a skilled workman about half a year. That one day books would be so cheap and publishers’ profit so important that people would design books to be thrown out—this would simply have been incomprehensible.

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  1. frankenduf says:

    clothing used to be more durable as well

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  2. Bobby G says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Bobby G says:

      I apologize, I meant thanks Sanjoy!

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      • step21 says:

        What kind of reasoning would you imagine under that publishers/manufacturers can charge for a prodcut twice? Don’t start giving them ideas.

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      • Bei says:

        They already do it with games. If you buy a second hand EA sports game you have to pay to get on the multiplayer servers (EA Online Pass). Basically if companies can find some way to limit 2nd hand users, they will. For example, maybe textbooks could give online support materials only to first time buyers — although admittedly most of the time I don’t use the online resources. But for games I definitely need the multiplayer.

        It’s all part of the ‘You buy a license to use the content while we let you’ mentality rather than a ‘You buy the product’ mentality.

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    • G Harmon says:

      Publishers have found a model: Renting textbooks.

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  3. Anthony Veitch says:

    I suspect that those items that are most robust individually are in categories that are most robust as technologies too. Like frying pans.

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  4. Mike B says:

    Blame a combination of the stupidity of the typical American consumer and the stagnation of middle and lower class purchasing power. When people are living paycheck to paycheck with little extra to save then they simply have no choice and must buy the cheapest goods available, even if over the long run those cheap goods will cost them more than a high quality good that last multiple times as long. Of course only part of this is due to necessity, cheaper goods make people feel like they have more purchasing power and makes up for stagnant wages and of course most people are simply unable to plan for the future, delay gratification or carry out basic cost analysis.

    This is the real heartbreak of WalMart. I’m fine with most of what WalMart does to drive down costs, including its ability to drive older, less efficient retailers out of business. In fact it has shown that it can use its market power for food by selling organic foods and efficient light bulbs at prices average consumers can afford. What WalMart doesn’t do is help its customers get the best deal over a product’s lifetime. Sure that Chinese made toilet brush might cost half of what you expect to pay, but if it only lasts 1/4th as long you are getting screwed. Of course selling low quality junk is exactly in WalMart’s interest because the sooner you widget breaks the sooner you are back in the store buying a replacement and the more markup WalMart gets to extract. If I had a choice between making WalMart a union shop or getting it to push high quality goods I would go for the goods because that is the place where WalMart is hurting both consumers and our Nation as a whole.

    It is worth pointing out that when technology is undergoing rapid advancement it helps to skimp on robustness because that technology will be honestly obsolete in a short period of time. Also don’t forget the paradox of quality where if a good lasts forever the company making it will quickly see sales stagnate as the market saturates. The high cost of high quality is created because not only does one need to spend more to make a better quality item, but the low volume associated with such items will create high average fixed costs. Automobiles are quickly reaching this stage where compared to 20 years modern cars can provide trouble free running for hundreds of thousands of miles and with the end of cheap credit people have realized there is absolutely no need to get a new car every 3 or 4 years.

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    • Dean says:

      The real shame of the WalMart model is that the low-cost, low-quality items take such a huge market share that manufacturers can no longer sustain a high quality product line. After a point, you have to buy the inferior product because the quality alternative is no longer available.

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      • Mark says:

        I actually have one of those cast iron frying pans, identical to the one pictured. I bought it 4 years ago at …. Walmart.

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    • Preemptive Placebo says:

      The military and aviation models show that robustness and rapid technological advancement are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to make a car, computer, mobile phone, and television where the individual parts are easily replaceable and upgraded. As you point out, the paradox of quality has, up to now, guaranteed decreasing sales for any company pursuing this anti-obsolescence strategy.

      The post-Craigslist/Google marketplace, on the other hand, shows that even mature industries are vulnerable to a paradigm shift. People pay an absurd premium for those old bombproof clicky keyboards because they are yearning for that shift. Now if only someone came up with a model that would usher it in.

      Maybe Ma Bell wasn’t far off with the phone.

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  5. Consumer says:

    Even worse: most of the revenue genrated from planned obsolence is bogus. And that is factored in any GDP calculation. It looks like GDP gets higher when thing break more often ;-(
    Similarly the healhcare “industry” is also a part of the GDP. The more people get sick, the better for GDP, nice huh?

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    • Mike B says:

      The value of being “Middle Class” (or any class for that matter) doesn’t come from one’s absolute level of consumption compared over time, but from one’s relative level of consumption compared to their contemporaries. For example today’s poor are much better off in that clothing is virtually free and human waste is channeled safely away from where they need to sleep and get their water. On the other hand just because they are the envy of the 1800′s poor doesn’t mean their lives still don’t suck today.

      Take someone from the 1970′s or 1950′s and calculate the amount of luxury or higher quality items that they then vs a middle class person today. For example many middle class folks would buy entry level luxury car marques like Mercury or Pontiac or Oldsmobile. Today those brands no longer exist because today’s middle class lacks the disposable income for such things. That’s not data, but simply saying that because people all have microwaves today therefore they are better off is not a valid comparison.

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      • James says:

        That’s a misleading example, since in those days the only difference between Chevrolet/Pontiac or Ford/Mercury were in minor details of the sheet metal. The mechanical bits were exactly the same. Today even the cheapest Hondas and Toyotas are of far higher quality, while those who they to spend money for “status” can opt for the higher-priced Accura/Lexus/whatever variants. But why bother? I currently own a 2000 Honda Insight (150K miles) and a 1988 Toyota pickup (220K miles). Both still run perfectly, and have had only minor maintenance done on them. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I keep driving them both for another 10 years. Try THAT with your ’70s cars.

        (Oh, OK, I may have to trade in the Honda – the floor mat’s getting a hole worn in it.)

        Now as to the “quality” of that frying pan: Yes, it’s durable, but how much time (and energy) are you spending waiting for it to heat and cool? How much cooking versatility do you lose by not being able to change temperature quickly?

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  6. Inkraven says:

    High-quality, durable goods are not feasible within a highly consumerist economy. The model is built around people constantly going out to buy new stuff instead of [properly] maintaining what they have already purchased.

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    • Mike B says:

      You are not considering the universe of things people need to spend their money on. Back in the day people would spent 20-33% of their income on food so that kept the economy going, because materials cost more than labour it was easier for firms to compete on quality and because so many new products were being invented and because people had been living in a per-consumer society, this attention to durability did not hurt growth.

      People can be just as consumerist and still get high quality goods as long as they spend their money on either actual consumables or on consumable human services.

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  7. Tom says:

    Interesting and true. You’ve named one example, how about a few more from us readers. What goods, or what companies manufacture goods, meant to stand the test of time? In my own experience, it’s pretty limited. I can think of a few companies offhand that essentially guarantee what they sell for the life of the user (and they often last longer) or they replace it.

    Filson
    Oneida
    Tilley hats

    Any others?

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    • Mike B says:

      There’s a light bulb in California that’s been burning for 100 years. The company that made it went out of business. Guess why. XD

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    • Preemptive Placebo says:

      All Patagonia products.
      Thermarest.
      Craftsman tools (limited)
      Any REI product.

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    • tootiemoonie says:

      Off the top of my head – I use a Kitchen Aid mixer handed down to me by my aunt and can’t imagine needing to replace or repair it. I have a Champion Juice machine – ditto. And there is Le Crueset – which makes enamel coated cast iron pans that will last forever – but we already know that from our guest blogger.
      Apart from textbooks – what a wicked contract clause – books are pretty durable…

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      • Natalie says:

        KitchenAid still guarantees their product for life. Just having examined my 3 year old stand mixer, it appears to be very well made and I fully intend on using it for a lifetime.

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      • Wendybird13 says:

        My stepmother watched prices on KitchenAid mixers for 2 years before deciding that the absolutely lowest price was at X store on the day after Thanksgiving. 10 years later, I see exactly that price advertised every couple months for 5 qt mixers “just like mine’. How can they afford to do that?

        As far as I can tell, they’ve cheapened the product, and cover the cost of their warranty program with “handling fees’ when you send it in for repair. One of my friends bought the larger, stronger 6 qt mixer. . . and had to send it in to be rebuilt after less than 3 years.

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    • Mark says:

      Lodge. (They make cast iron frying pans in the United States).

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