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Planned Obsolescence

You’ve heard people say “they don’t make them like they used to” or “they keep changing the design so you have to keep buying new accessories.” People aren’t saying it just for giggles, they’re right. There are products out there that are made to fail so you end up having to replace them and there are marketers who are trying to convince us that we need the most up to date version of their product. People line up to buy the newest whatever how some of us used to line up to buy concert tickets.

Once upon a time, if something broke, there was an excellent chance it could be fixed mostly because its design was simple and it was made out of sturdy materials. Back then people didn’t throw things away like they do nowadays. The broken item went to the small workshop in the basement or the tool bench in the garage and it was probably a dad, an uncle, or a grandfather who did the repairs. Women were handy with thread and needle and it wasn’t just clothing they fixed, they worked on fishing nets and cloth sails, and they made one kitchen utensil preform a variety of tasks instead of just one. Re-purposing was standard practice, not a trend.

Americans are no dummies and we had surely caught on to manufacturers tricks. Consumer Reports magazine was basically developed in the mid 1930’s and went on to point out inadequacies in seat belts, lawn mowers and microwave ovens saving not just lots of money but plenty of lives as well. People still depend on their research before buying a new product. When we go to buy something online, we check the reviews it gets. Of course I wasn’t surprised when it came to light that there are lots of bogus reviews, it’s just too easy to fib on the internet.

Now there are warranties that will cover some basic aspects of manufacturing and the extended warranties that you pay big bucks for. That sounds like a good idea right? Buying a little extra insurance on a big ticket item? I remember a simple window air conditioner that had stopped working and the long, uphill battle that I got involved in getting the producer to honor their five year warranty. It was a long, tedious series of hoops to jump through, a ridiculous amount of time on the phone and a succession of supervisors before the company made the situation right. I admit that I generally don’t believe in those long term warranties. I just want to pay a fair price for a fair product.

The new thing is an upgrade. You know what I’m talking about if you have a cell phone. It’s estimated that there were about 1.8 billion mobile phones sold in 2013. And upgrades are usually offered every other year. That is a tremendous amount of small electronic devices floating around the world. Some are being recycled properly, a whole lot sit in desk drawers with a huge knot of unlabeled chargers and goodness knows how many have ended up in the landfills or worse, our natural environment.

So how do we protect ourselves when it comes to purchasing new merchandise? Research helps, word of mouth can be invaluable and of course looking for the best quality and that doesn’t necessarily mean more money. Stick with brands that you have found satisfaction with before and companies that stand by their name like LL Bean. Go for vintage or even second hand, there’s a reason that stuff is still around, it was made to last! Maybe your broken belonging can be fixed, maybe it can be repurposed. If you want to try to fix something yourself, you’ll find some pretty handy videos on Youtube or maybe you know a friend or neighbor who likes a challenge and wouldn’t mind helping you try to keep something out of the landfill.

It’s hard to protect ourselves from consumer fraud but maybe the best thing we can do is be more mindful about consuming. Do you really want to have that thing or do you actually need it? Could you find something else to suit the same purpose or maybe borrow a rarely used something from a friend? Can you wait another year or two before upgrading? Maybe if we think very carefully and act slowly about how we consume, we can own better quality material possessions for longer periods of time.