Programmed obsolescence: A necessary unwanted Christmas gift?

Programmed obsolescence: A necessary unwanted Christmas gift?

In the run up to the festive period, Emmanuelle Le Nagard, Professor of Marketing and Associate Dean of Pedagogy at ESSEC Business School, takes a look at the phenomenon of programmed obsolescence from both consumer and manufacturer perspectives and offers us some insightful food for thought before Christmas.  

Obsolescence: durable and evolving

Programmed obsolescence has been the focus of much debate in recent years as consumers and consumer watchdogs, not to mention the media, decry a policy that seems to put the buyer at the mercy of the machine – literally with sometimes ‘shocking’ results (the electric toaster that suddenly fizzles out mid-way into your favorite breakfast treat, or the computer charger that puzzlingly refuses to accept electricity and sends emergency “buy now” messages to your screen, are but a couple of everyday examples). Among the heated debate and recent regulations, Prof. Emmanuelle Le Nagard cools the issue down with an objective look into what exactly programmed obsolescence is and how it impacts both consumers and manufacturers. 

For Le Nagard, a first step is to distinguish between programmed obsolescence – the design of a product with a deliberately limited physical life-cycle – from the obsolescence perceived by the owner of the product: for programmed obsolescence supposes a premeditated strategy on the part of a producer who could design more durable products but decides to choose not to. Moreover, it is difficult to put a date to the notion of programmed obsolescence, not least because a producer always decides upon quality and durability also in function of the pricing of the product. In this light, the phenomenon has always existed.

It is equally difficult to prove because the choice of components and the overall design of a product incorporate multiple criteria, and not only that of durability. Furthermore, programmed obsolescence concerns product repair capacity. Consumer watchdogs have tracked products for many years and have listed a number of ways in which the consumer may have the temptation to feel a victim of the wheels of industry: life duration limitation, design that limits the possibility for repair (ever tried replacing a brake light on a modern car or getting a microwave oven to function properly again?), aesthetic obsolescence (fashion victims, as we may well be), a design requiring constant improvement via the purchasing of accessories, shortened “use/eat-by” dates (certain foodstuffs, for example), and even “ecological obsolescence” (over a certain date, our cherished product becomes a hazard for the environment). As such, some countries have introduced legislation. In 2016, for example, France introduced the “Hamon Law” that imposes producers the obligation to inform buyers of the time it took to manufacture a product and the commercialization of its spare parts. According to this law, the duration cannot be lower than two years.   

A tricky choice for the manufacturers

A manufacturer is pulled between providing desired and quality products, at the right price, fostering trust and loyalty, taking care of its customers, generating revenue and ensuring its survival. The question may be asked: why do manufacturers opt then for programmed obsolescence when a question of ethics is raised? One of the answers can be provided by the rather narrow leeway for solutions a company may have. In the field of consumer durables, for example, when the penetration rate (the amount of sales of a product compared to the theoretical market capacity for it) of a product becomes maximal, the only solution for a company is to incite its product owners to renew it. Two scenarios may occur: either the product no longer works, or the customer perceives that there is a better product on the market, which he then wants to buy – even if the old one still works. Counting on the first mechanism – that of the deliberate reduction in the product life-cycle – may be considered unethical and seriously put the name of the brand into disrepute, notably if this life-cycle duration is hidden from the customer. However, if a lower product life-cycle is linked to a lower price – and this is clearly presented to the consumer – this doesn’t necessarily count as unethical. 

On the other hand, companies may also seek, via innovation, to render a product comparatively less desirable because it may also be launching a more effective or attractive product on the market. The customer is therefore the sole judge of the opportunity to replace an older product. As such, this scenario does not fall within the scope of programmed obsolescence although certain consumer watchdogs may legitimately denounce a phenomenon of “over-consumption”.

Should the consumer play the game?

Paradoxically, should consumers accept programmed obsolescence – for the good of the economy, even jobs, or the functioning of our particular system? It is a question which could indeed be debated on condition that the choice – programmed obsolescence or not – is clearly presented to consumers. Needless to say, this is not currently the case, and if transparency were to see the light, it would first be necessary to assess the consequences of the increase in duration of product life on the slowing down of the economy and the destruction of jobs. Moreover, the additional factors of the costs involved in processing waste or the recycling of products should also be taken into account in the calculation. However, today, the notion of programmed obsolescence is very widely rejected de facto by consumers and the world is thus very far from this type of reasoning and acceptance. 

But thy eternal summer shall not fade: Shakespeare has a word for the stakeholders

Owners of manufacturing companies might ask themselves if there is indeed an alternative to programmed obsolescence while ensuring the sustainability of their business. For Emmanuelle Le Nagard, the answer is yes. By playing on the durability-side to the product, and by offering a warranty on the product’s life – for example, by guaranteeing its capacity to be repaired thanks to a modular design or the long-term availability of spare parts – it may even become an opportunity to differentiate yourself on the market. Such an example, states Le Nagard, can be seen in the modular Smartphone offered by Fairphone, or the strategy implemented by SEB on repair capacity which she sees as particularly effective, including for brand image. 

Will programmed obsolescence disappear under consumer pressure? Defined as the deliberate choice, at a given level of quality, to limit the physical life-cycle of a product, Emmanuelle Le Nagard sees this as already very marginal in real practice. Indeed, it would be an extremely dangerous strategy for a brand in an era where the power of the consumer has increasing presence and impact. However, at one point, products will always be perceived as obsolete even if they still perfectly work – because if not, that would signify that innovation no longer exists. 


Useful links:

  Principes de Marketing. (with P. Kotler, G. Amstrong, R. Butori, D. Dion, F. Oble). 13th edition. Paris (France)  : Pearson Education France, 2016 
  Le marketing de l'innovation. (with D. Manceau, S. Morin‑Delerm). 3rd edition. Paris (France)  : Dunod, 2015 
  Principes de Marketing. (with P. Kotler, G. Amstrong, T. Lardinoit). 11th edition. Paris (France)  : Pearson Education France, 2013 
  Principes de Marketing. (with P. Kotler, G. Amstrong, R. Butori, D. Dion, T. Lardinoit, F. Oble). 11th edition. Paris (France)  : Pearson Education France, 2013 
  Le marketing de l'innovation. (with D. Manceau). 2d edition. Paris (France)  : Dunod, 2011 
  Principes de marketing. (with G. Armstrong, P. Kotler, T. Lardinoit). 8th edition. Paris (France)  : Pearson Education France, 2007 


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