When the iPhone was first introduced in 2007, Steve Jobs said, “every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along and changes everything.” Maybe the iPhone was that product, the turning point for our relationship with our phones – one that became closer and more functional. But twelve versions later, that revolution just seems like a glimmer. Questions about how relevant those products are and how fast new versions are being introduced led Apple to grow apart from its public, going from revolutionary herald to planned obsolescence artist, abiding by that idea that reminds us that a novelty is not quite a novelty, just the means to drive us to the stores.
Apple is part of a broader context, it’s true. We are used to replacing our electronic gadgets (especially mobile phones) every two or three years. The standards technology companies create change all the time. File formats become incompatible, cables and connectors change formats, operating systems get slower. So we buy. But it’s not just about the money. In 2014, for example, the number of active mobile phones reached 7.2 billion units, exceeding the number of people on the planet. And since a lot of them tend to be quickly discarded, the volume of waste has become a huge problem. Moreover, it is estimated that it takes around 400 kilograms (nearly 900 pounds) of natural resources to make one smartphone, from water to metals like lead.
If we have so much to lose with the short time span within which we make/replace electronic gadget, it doesn’t take too much to understand why so many people are questioning this reckless cycle of production and consumption. Consumers who are politically organized, like Spain-based Movement Against Planned Obsolescence (SOP), or who speak out on social media, like those who tweet very unflattering things every new Apple launch. Yes, companies are still lingering on the notion that more production generates more consumption and more profits. And yes, consumption is a two-way street, where both industries and clients drive. But considering the notion of conscious consumption emerging in our society, what tends to happen is that admirable – or revolutionary – products in the near future will be probably those capable of translating our desires into long-lasting objects that can defy the logic of discarding.
The gadget of today – and forever
It’s not about offering extended warranty or a green seal; it’s about offering products with an ethos driven by the very reconsideration of an economic growth model. How? Since last year, Google has been working on its Project Ara, which aims to create a modular smartphone (in pieces) that consumers can replace according to their needs – if I want a better camera, I won’t have to pay (the financial and environmental price) for the whole new device, but I can replace just the camera module. By replacing one module now and another module later, it will be possible to keep our devices up to date and customized. Today’s perfect gadget can be reborn constantly as the perfect gadget tomorrow.
Along those lines, in the so-called modular technology, the pieces can be replaced and you can improve performance without having to replace the whole device. The Blocks Wearables smartwatch, created by a startup that goes by the same name, is another example. Cocreator Alireza Tahmasebzadeh said the following when they introduced it:
“Right now, the technology is controlling us. It needs to be vice-versa.”
The Block Wearables website states: “We are redefining the way technology is built by creating a platform that will keep your device future-proof.” The message with their modular devices is: when you buy it, you can wear it forever.
A “brilliant” idea
We know that few industries are as skillful as the electronics industries in fomenting patterns of constant consumption. But it’s interesting to realize that very industry is promoting precious efforts to stop the logic of planned obsolescence. Efforts that are not detached from market concerns.
Quite the contrary: no company can survive if it is detached from the aspirations of its time.
No branding action is as effective as getting the brand in tune with society’s needs. Google’s quest with Ara is like a sailing boat searching for wind.
Dutch company Philips has already sailed into those winds. When it realized governments and consumers alike were opposing incandescent, polluting, energy-inefficient lamps, it started to expand its production of efficient LED lamps, which last 25 times more. So other companies had to follow its steps. And of course, the transition into the era of durable consumption required changes to their business models: half the revenue of lamp manufacturers is not derived from product sales, but from services offered to corporate clients and governments. The companies are in charge of setting up and changing lamps, as well as following up on their energy consumption for a certain period. What they are selling is light management.
Fun fact: the idea of planning a product’s obsolescence actually started with lamps. In the 1920s, a cartel of manufacturers from all around the world decided to reduce their products’ useful life from 2,500 hours of use to mere 1,000 hours. Their intention was to force people to buy three times as many lamps to supply the same light needs. Nearly 100 years later, a “brilliant” idea takes us in the opposite direction…
The real profit
Reducing the number of products sold and investing in products designed to last are practices that are making companies change the way they think about profit. It’s a challenging task, but also a long-term win. Like the American adviser Andrew Winston wrote, the real question is not whether companies will take on sustainable missions, but how fast they can change their strategies and tactics to stand out at solving humankind’s greatest challenges profitably.
On the other hand, obsolescence may be physical (products designed not to last), but also psychological, in which consumers voluntarily replace something that still works just to remain fashionable. Businesses will not make a great effort toward durable consumption while consumers don’t give clearer signs that they want changes in manufacturing patterns. Again, consumption is a two-way street.
Maybe most of us are still feeling excited about the object – we have just learned how to manage it, and we want to enjoy the novelty, so buying is seen as a form of fruition. But the voices of those who understand our fast consumption habits are self-destructive and we are not what we own already sound like a sign of the future. To paraphrase Steve Jobs,
“every once in a while, a new consciousness comes along and changes everything”.