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.


clothing used to be more durable as well

Bobby G

Yeah... it's a shame publishing companies don't get any revenue off of the used book market (or any publisher from any second hand market, like video games or other electronics). If they could, perhaps that would alleviate the planned obsolescence business model.

Imagine if a business could generate revenue on a product not only the first time they sold it but subsequently when they sold it back used? That would probably result in price decreases on new editions, or, alternatively, higher quality and longevity being built back into products (since the longer a product would last, the more times the company could profit from a resale with little or no production cost associated).

Seems like the solution would be for these businesses to set up and maintain their own second hand markets for their products... which is admittedly more difficult than the resale textbook shops that seem to be right across the street from any college and university. Still, seems like those used resale shops not only cause deadweight loss by profiting pretty much only off of transfer payments, they encourage this planned obsolescence business model and punish anyone who buys or makes new products. Doesn't seem healthy for business.

Maybe has the right idea with their "warehouse deals" section, where they themselves run a used/resale venture. Again, it's the people that make the products, not just sell the products, that need to get in on that line of business; perhaps Amazon has kickbacks to those companies? (Seems unlikely).

Something to think about... thanks for the article Dubs, sorry for the comment stream-of-consciousness :)


Bobby G

I apologize, I meant thanks Sanjoy!

Anthony Veitch

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

Mike B

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.



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.


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?


Please see...

Mike B

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.



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.

Mike B

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.


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.

Tilley hats

Any others?

Mike B

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

Eric M. Jones

Having been a product development engineer for most of my life, the very notion of planned obsolence is ridiculous.

Should things last forever? Would you buy them if their price were far higher? Should your car go a million miles? Are you in the market for a $250,000 car to drive to work or to drive the kids to soccer practice?

Here's how things are designed: Items are designed to allow utility for a time long enough to be worth your investment. Occasionally things last longer than expected, or not as long. This is usually just random design noise.

If there are good parts remaining after the device has otherwise expired, then the design engineer wasted money where it was not needed. I've done that. If there is an early failure, the designer has erred. I've done that, too.

Ideally (and only infrequently achieved) is a design where the customer uses it up and says..."It sure doesn't owe me anything." My Sears Craftsman 16" chainsaw went to its grave this way. Cost $99, cut down, and diced up, over 100 really big trees before losing compression. A good design.



I understand the frustration of planned obsolescence for some products, like furniture. People like me, can buy other people's used furniture when they decide they want new furniture, and it's still furniture. I can still sit on it and watch TV in the exact same way I could any other piece of furniture. At least I could if it lasted longer than 3 years. But for other things, it's really not that big of a deal. Take for example the link about the iPhone battery. There's no way the guy writing that is using a phone that is two years old. So what if the battery only last a year and half? That's not why it's obsolete. It's obsolete because it's two years old, and in phone years, that's like half a century.

As far as the text books go, it seems like the Universities are the problem. I'd say it would take about one year of unsold new editions to force publishers into pushing back the release of the next edition. If the Universities didn't require it, it wouldn't sell. How does the University not have all the leverage in that relationship? I mean, who else on the planet is looking to buy a thousand copies of "University Physics"? I have to say I've never seen that one sitting on a coffee table.



If you want to buy a cast iron skillet that will last forever, you can. It's just that most of us realize that we could buy 46.4 cheaper skillets for that price and we will probably only use a few of them so getting a big cast iron skillet only makes sense for very few people.

What you lament as waste, I commend as a luxury of affordability and efficiency.

Mike B

That would be the correct way to think if the costs actually worked out that way. Unfortunately the old saying holds true...its the stingy man that pays the most.


Part of the problem is information. If I wanted a phone that lasted for 20+ years and were willing to pay more for it, how would I find one? I can find the cost easily enough, I can compare features, I could read reviews to try and judge the quality and ease of use, but there is very little information on how long a product will last. Partly due to the fact that the only products we know will last 20 years are ones that have been on the market for 20 years, and nobody wants to buy a product that’s 20 years out of date.

paul o.

Cars are made so much better than before. If you bought a Chrysler in 1984, you'd be lucky to get 100,000 miles out of it. Building materials are also so much better- roofing, tile underlayment, decking, countertops, hardware and fasteners, etc. Also tools.

It's not so bad, 90% of the stuff that is cap you can tell just by looking at it and feeling it. Then I have internet access on my phone that I can pull out to reviews before buying something.
Yes, phones and ironing boards


I've experienced this problem with appliances as well - it seems that they used to last forever but now most major appliances are designed to be replaced every 5-7 years or so. (It also irks me that I can't simply buy a replacement battery for my ipod, as I own a 10-yr old ipod mini that works great except the battery won't hold a charge.)

My biggest problem with shelling out for the new textbook was that, in some classes, I was expected to pay upwards of $100-150 for the book but then not allowed to use it come exam time. This was rarely or never the case in my engineering classes (where exams were typically open-book) but was always the case in my chemistry classes. What's the point of owning the book if I can't refer to it when I need to?