Planning obsolescence

Everything has a lifespan, including the products we use. I don’t have a problem with companies understanding this, and specifically designing their goods to fall within a specific number of years or uses. They have incentives to maximize profit, so in markets where they can’t rely on technical innovation to drive sales, planning obsolescence is a viable tactic.

The main problem here is more around the massive information imbalance between consumers and producers around product life. OEMs don’t currently have to compete, and therefore price, using lifespan as a metric because they don’t have to disclose it. They are allowed to obfuscate this critical bit of information, hiding it from buyers. So I really like the idea France is pushing for product usable lifetime labeling.

The concept is simple, but I instead of the voluntary plan that France is planning I would like it to be mandatory. With lifespan another feature that can be compared product-to-product it empowers buyers. Giving them the ability to select with more information. I also think it could have a “green” impact as well, as producers who plan for very short lifespans could be shamed into extending them.

The biggest problem I see with this is that a one-size-fits-all lifespan number might not work for more complicated products. A clothes washer or refrigerator has a generally accepted function now, but as they add connectivity and “smarts” it moves them more towards a product like a mobile phone. Here product longevity and useful longevity might not coincide – providing a massive loophole in the number. For a smart device to stay smart, and safe, it needs updates; both security and functional. Taking Wi-Fi connectivity as an example of the latter, how useful is a device that doesn’t support WPA2 AES?

Accountability is an other concern. There would need to be some kind of enforcement mechanism. Although perhaps codifying a statistical allowed deviation from the number would work.