A couple of years ago I had a white iPhone 4S. I loved that thing. It was compact, durable, great on battery and very functional. After about 18 months of reasonable use, I upgraded the software as soon as Apple told me to. It was one of those things that pops up on your phone and you don’t read it, you just hit the yes button and it does the thing. Well, THIS MISTAKE RUINED MY PHONE. It was impossibly slow. To the point of it not even being worth using anymore. I emptied it of all my tunes and photos – no help. I restored the software – no help. I took it to the Apple store and they said it cannot be reversed – I was devastated. I stood there arguing at the disinterested college kid because Apple had taken my beloved, fully functional thing and made it shit. I bought a new one and called it a day, though many others were not so forgiving to Apple.
This is called planned obsolescence. It’s not new and I’m only picking on Apple because of their shameless and blatant use of it. We’ve all experience this frustration with other products. Stereo systems, washing machines, romantic partners – if it can be mass produced, it can have a 10 cent widget built in to it to break it after two years. In Apple’s case its even easier. The products they sell are often lauded for their quality and user-friendliness which puts them in a tough position if they want to make more money, which they do. You can almost hear the execs in the boardroom scheming to release a dud software so everyone has to buy a new i-thing. This is great for the company’s EBITDA and bad for your hip pocket but I’m more concerned about it for another reason.
We recently had a council pickup near where I live. Streets and streets of 3 to 5 year old TVs, toasters, printers and microwaves mostly going to landfill. We can put men on the moon but we can’t make a toaster that lasts more than 5 years? All of that stuff has an insane amount of embodied energy in it and a few years after it’s been made, shipped and installed it breaks. Come on, mankind, we can do better than that. That embodied energy cannot be recovered and neither can the emissions released during its manufacture and transport. Some will argue that buying new things makes a positive impact on the environment because new things use less energy than old things. In some cases that will be true, but in a majority of cases a full lifecycle analysis will yield the opposite result. I recently compared the running of an older car to buying newer, more efficient models at the national average rate and showed that keeping an older car for longer results in 38% less CO2-equivalent being released in to the atmosphere.
There are undoubtedly some benefits to planned obsolescence other than the manufacturers bottom line. It does stimulate GDPs worldwide and it does provide economic growth. But at what cost? The environmental impacts of over-consumption are well understood and what’s more, the economic benefits are only very marginally passed down to citizens of the developing countries where our products are manufactured, contrary to the opinions of some proponents of growth.
So what can we do about planned obsolescence and it’s negative environmental impacts? It’s pretty simple:
- Buy less stuff (less to break)
- Keep stuff for longer
This seems easy to implement, especially for the idealistic minimalists amongst us, but it’s not. A friend recently told me about how he was travelling through a transfer airport and saw a computer for a few hundred bucks. He figured he wasn’t going to get a better price than this at home and he bought the new computer. Within a year it’d slowed beyond belief and its battery was lasting about 20 minutes. So he bought a new computer for more money and this one now sits on his desk gathering dust. This is called impulse buying and it’s the enemy of responsible buying (economically and environmentally). Our reptilian brains must be programmed for seeking out what we think are bargains because I think we can all relate to my mate.
So how do we keep stuff for longer amidst all the planned obsolescence? We have to be selective with what we buy which means buying better, possibly more expensive things which last longer. This doesn’t only have appeal to our environmental consciences but also to the budget savvy out there. Let me illustrate. I used to buy a few pairs of sneakers a year. They get dirty or they wear out, you throw them away and you buy another pair. I once bought a pair for $18 from the local Urban Outfitters. I literally got two uses out of them before they started falling apart. Ridiculous, right! What to do to align with the Jiuntu ethos… buy better quality, and be willing to pay more. So I saved up and bought a pair of RM Williams boots for $500. That’s a lot but if they last me 10 years, and I believe they will (drop me a line in 2026) then I’m ahead with 3 pairs per year of $18 sneakers as a comparison. And you can bet your bottom dollar when you drop that sort of coin on a pair of shoes you look after them!
I’ll give you another example. I’ve been frustrated with providing dividends to Gillette shareholders for years. Why are those little razor heads so expensive? So I bought one of these.
It’s a safety razor and it was expensive at $80. But that’s a one off with each replaceable blade costing only 30¢.
By comparison, a Gillette razor kit costs only $14 but each replacement blade head is $4.
Say I use my safety razor and my aforementioned computer mate uses his Gillette for the next 20 years before we lose them. We both change our blades at the same rate of one per month and no maintenance is required. That means the purchasing and running costs are:
Buying the more expensive razor works out to be 6.5 times cheaper in the long run. But that’s not what makes safety razors a Jiuntu success story. It’s the fact that every month I throw out one, low embodied energy blade rather than a complex, energy intensive razor head. That’s less energy in manufacturing, transport and disposal.*
This thinking can be applied to most of our things. A friend recently linked me to a site called Buy Me Once which promises to sell and endorse only products which are made to last. They’re currently only present in the US and UK but what a great idea! Also, quality is certainly not always synonymous with higher price. My most donned and durable pair of shorts cost me $10 at Target. Another oft-overlooked option is buying used goods. I recently bought something off Gumtree and it not only saved me dough but all of the embodied energy and emissions in what I bought, which had already been spent, didn’t go to waste by me buying something brand new. I also got a better product for my budget because it was used, albeit only slightly.
Whilst the buy less and better quality stuff ethos works a lot of the time, it doesn’t work with our more complex – and capital intensive – objects such as cars, phones and washing machines. What’s more is the economic argument breaks down too, with many cheaper cars being cheaper to own and more reliable than more expensive variants, for example, with no discernible environmental benefit. With those you’ll have to do your research, disengage your reptilian brain and try not to be swayed by fancy gimmicks. For now, you can bet your bottom dollar that when Apple release a new software version I won’t be upgrading. It’s basic environomics.
*Disclaimer 1: You won’t get this through airport security in your hand luggage. If you travel with carry on only a lot, you’re on your own.
Disclaimer 2: If you’re around small children or senile adults a lot, consider their safety when deciding where you put your blades.