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Capitalism’s Waste: Planned Obsolescence

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Obsolescence is the material and cultural paradigm of capitalism.
– Neil Maycroft, Consumption, planned obsolescence and waste 

Planned obsolescence is a strategy that is unique to the capitalist system. Under this strategy, products are designed to be phased out. This results in a waste of resources and labor power. A centrally planned, socialist economy would make planned obsolescence obsolete and eliminate unnecessary waste.  

The actual term “planned obsolescence” was first used by Bernard London in his 1932 essay “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence.” In this essay, he described the depression being a capitalist crisis created through over-accumulation:  

The essential and bitter irony of the present depression lies in the fact that millions of persons are deprived of a satisfactory standard of living at a time when the granaries and warehouses of the world are overstuffed with surplus supplies, which have so broken the price level as to make new production unattractive and unprofitable.  

This is an accurate depiction of Marx’s theory of overproduction and capitalist crisis, but London came up with a very different solution than Marx. Rather than giving control of production to the working class, he decided that:  

If we want to acquire new wealth, the supply lines must be drained so that fresh commodities can come in. If there are stale goods left in the lines, the fresh supply must force them out.  

In this plan, Bernard London combined an increase in supply with a mandatory life span on commodities enforced by state power. Consumers would be required to turn in their “obsolete” items after a planned period of time. This solution never came to pass, but General Motors became one of the first companies to use a form of planned obsolescence during the 1930s. Their method created demand by releasing new models of the same product and marketing them as indispensable when in reality they differ very little from the previous years’ models. As GM CEO Alfred P. Sloan wrote, “The changes in the new model should be so novel and attractive as to create demand…and a certain amount of dissatisfaction with past models as compared with the new one.” In essence, they created false demand that was based on marketing techniques rather than actual use value.  

Today, planned obsolescence has advanced beyond cars and become a part of many industries. A modern-day example is found in the “fast fashion” industry. Fast fashion is “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.” Rather than following the seasons, there is a constant push to sell the hot new fashion items on a weekly basis. As Good Trade describes it, “Nowadays, fast fashion brands produce about 52 ‘micro-seasons’ a year—or one new ‘collection’ a week.” No one needs a new clothing item on a weekly basis, but this system of micro-trends drives corporate profits.  

In addition to driving up profits, fast fashion also increases waste. According to the Sustainable Textiles Synthesis Report on the clothing industry:  

  • Most clothes are discarded within 3 years   
  • 62 million tons of clothing are consumed annually 
  • 83% are sent to landfill/incineration 
  • 1% of clothing material is recycled into new clothing 

 It also is:  

  • Set to use 25% of carbon budget for 2 degrees C warming by 2050 
  • Set to use 35% more land by 2030 
  • Responsible for 85% of all anthropogenic debris on global shorelines 
  • Responsible for 20% of world industrial water pollution  

This is clearly an unsustainable model, but clothing is a $3 trillion a year industry and under capitalism, profit always takes precedence over sustainability. As long as the shareholders see a profit, the logic of capitalism dictates that this planned obsolescence is a valid strategy. The destruction of the ecosystem is not measured in the balance books of the capitalist class.  

All products eventually wear out. There will always be a need for food because it is consumed in use. Similarly, clothing wears out over a period of time. But with many products, the natural lifetime of the product is long enough that in order to drive profits, corporations design them to expend their use value faster. Extreme examples of this are single-use items like disposable diapers, paper plates, plastic silverware, and straws. Their design ensures there is always a market for them.  

This practice is extreme in the plastics industry, which is based on the extraction of fossil fuels. According to Plastic Oceans, “We are producing over 380 million tons of plastic every year, and some reports indicate that up to 50% of that is for single-use purposes – utilized for just a few moments, but on the planet for at least several hundred years. It’s estimated that more than 10 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year.” Out of this colossal amount of plastic, 91% is not recycled. In the United States alone, the plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of CO2 gas emissions per year according to a 2021 report by Beyond Plastics.  

Traditionally, capitalists expanded their markets outward geographically. But this only works for a limited period of time. After geographical limits have been reached and/or become less profitable, corporations turn back inward in an attempt to expand local markets. One major way this has been done is through advertising to reach new customers. Planned obsolescence is similar to advertising but more insidious in its method of maintaining markets. Old customers are coerced into buying the same product again after it has worn out or is considered obsolete because newer, trendier models have been released.  

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

– Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Communist Manifesto  

This strategy only works if the ruling class is united, as they are under monopoly capitalism. Otherwise, a company might compete by creating a product designed to last and outperform companies whose products are designed to become obsolete. But under all forms of capitalism, profit is the driving motive and accumulation needs to be a continual process. This means that for capitalists planned obsolescence is a valid strategy to expand the market. It is not the mythical free market that decides, but the capitalist class united in their desire for profit.  

Making Planned Obsolescence Obsolete – A Socialist Economy 

Planned obsolescence represents one of many inherent contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. Private ownership of the means of production leads to production for the profit of the individual rather than for the good of the community as a whole. Expansion and profit are the driving forces behind this system. This leaves an entire class, the working class, outside in the cold. They produce the goods but receive none of the profits. Wealth is distributed based on ownership rather than labor. Resources are distributed based on market forces rather than human need.  

The solution to these contradictions lies in the socialist mode of production. Capitalist profit motives result in planned obsolescence and waste. Socialism replaces the profit motive with production for the good of the community. Instead of belonging to the capitalist class, the entire community takes control of the means of production. Rather than treating the consumer as an enemy who must be tricked into purchasing more items, the logic of communal production necessitates that planned obsolescence itself is obsolete.  

The only purpose of planned obsolescence is to create profits for private owners. When it comes to meeting basic human needs, there is no logical reason to create a product designed to fail or be thrown out. Planned obsolescence is just one of many ways the capitalist system produces waste. The waste created by capitalism is a direct threat to life on earth. The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres warns that we are “firmly on track toward an unlivable world.” A system that prioritizes profits over the environment guarantees an unlivable future. Society needs production for the common good, not production for profit.  

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