Return to Challenging Consumption & Planned Obsolescence

What is planned obsolescence?

What is planned obsolescence?

Planned obsolescence has been defined as 'instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary'[1].

AELA has adopted the definition of "planned obsolescence" from the definition used by the European Consumer Organisation BEUC[2] .  This definition refers to a wide range of techniques that certain manufacturers may use to shorten the functional lifespan of products and force consumers to make premature replacements to continue selling those products in saturated markets. This includes the deliberate acts to reduce product lifetimes and also the acceptance by manufacturers that poor quality products fail early and save production costs.

Strategies designed to shorten the functional lifespan of products include:

  • programmed failure of a product after limited usage. For example, inkjet printer cartridges that cease to work once one of the inks in the cartridge reaches a certain level despite containing enough ink to carry out more printing and contain microchips that prevent the cartridges from working after being refilled[3];
  • design features that do not allow repair, upgradeability and interoperability with other devices. For example, where batteries are welded, glued or soldered within electronic devices making them difficult to repair or mobile phones cease to be upgradable because software upgrades stop being made available[4];
  • unavailability of spare parts and high costs of repair;
  • marketing strategies that inspire consumers to replace products to keep with fashionable trends[5]. This strategy has been referred to as "perceived obsolescence".


Planned obsolescence is the result of an economic strategy in industrial societies that creates economic growth on the basis of the purchase of replacement purchases because markets for most consumer goods are saturated[6].

Optimal product lifetimes

Eradicating planned obsolescence is not simply a matter of making products last as long as they can. It requires an understanding of what impacts occur during each phase of the product's lifecycle, from extracting raw materials to the disposal of the product.

Products that have high negative impacts during manufacturing should be made to last as long as they can. Particularly where the negative impacts cannot be reduced by technological improvements[7].

Sometimes, a shorter lifetime than what is technically feasible is preferable, for example, if a new, more energy-efficient and less resource-consuming product is available[8].  This would be particularly relevant for products that cause substantial negative impacts as they are used (and more than the impacts caused during the manufacturing of the product) and where the energy efficiency enhancers cannot be upgraded within that product. In this case, shorter life cycles may be beneficial. The manufacturer could lease products to consumers, providing upgraded products as necessary and taking back the old product to repurpose or recycle components[9].

For more information email:


[1] Quote by Industrial designer, Brooke Stevens.  See Valant, J, Planned Obsolescence: Exploring the Issue, European Parliamentary Research Service, Briefing May 2016, European Parliament, accessed at on 20 April 2018.

[2] Bureau Europe`en Des Unions De Consommateurs AISBL.

[3] Aladeojebi, Taiwo K., "Planned Obsolescence", International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research, Volume 4, Issue 6, June-2013 1504; Valant, op. cit.  

[4] Valant, op. cit.; Maurer, S. and Pachl, U., Durable Goods: More sustainable products, better consumer rights. Consumer Expectations from the EU's resource efficiency and circular economy agenda, page 5, BEUC The European Consumer Organisation, BEUC-X-2015-069, 18 August 2015, accessed at on 20 April 2018.    .

[5] Maurer, S. and Pachl, U. op.cit., page 4.  

[6] Cooper, T., “Chapter 1: The value of longevity: Product quality and sustainable consumption” in Proceedings: Global Research Forum on Sustainable Consumption and Production Workshop, June 13-15, 2012, Rio de Janiero, Brazil.   

[7] Intlekofer, K., Bras, B. and Ferguson, M., “Energy implications of Product Leasing” , Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 44, issue 12, pp.4409-4415.

[8] Martins, J., Simoes, J. and Franqueira, T., "Sustainable design: the durability of design classics as a stimulus to reduce the environmental impact of products", in Cooper, T., Braithwaite, N., Moreno, M. and Salvia, G., (eds),  Product Lifetimes and the Environment Conference Proceedings, 17-19 June 2015, Nottingham, UK, accessed at on 20 April 2018.

[9] Martins, J., Simoes, J. and Franqueira, T., op cit.