Here’s the fix: planned obsolescence and the rise of a global repair movement

From software updates to the launch of the latest product models, tech companies lure us into a wasteful world of obsolescence. We examine the environmental toll and the rise of a new repair movement.

You’re the proud and happy owner of an expensive and shiny piece of kit until, one day, up pops the dreaded message: software update available.

You know you shouldn’t. But then you make the mistake of reading about all the life-changing improvements the upgrade will bring. And now you’re the unhappy owner of a device that’s running far slower than it used to and, pretty soon, you’re forking out hundreds of dollars for the latest version of the perfectly good piece of kit you just threw in the bin.

Welcome to the wonderful world of planned obsolescence.

Last year, a report by a green think tank in the United Kingdom revealed the extent to which the smart marketing of tech companies had created an alarmingly wasteful trend.

Once, the idea of regarding a consumer device that retails for hundreds of dollars as disposable would have seemed insane. But in the United States alone, revealed the Green Alliance, 141 million mobile devices were thrown away in 2010, with nine out of ten ending up as landfill.

In the UK, “for every phone in use, up to four sit in drawers unused”. More broadly, it is believed that about 95m tonnes of e-waste will be created this year alone, with much of this ending up in landfill. Not only is this bad for the environment but exposure to toxic substances in discarded electronics, such as mercury, lead and arsenic is harmful for those recycling e-waste in developing countries.

This, says Green Alliance, is bonkers. Its analysis showed that, in terms of capabilities, “a two-year-old flagship smartphone can be more attractive than today’s mid- to low-tier bestsellers”. It also found repairing a broken phone “makes economic and environmental sense for at least four years, and up to seven in some cases”, while “keeping a mobile phone in use for just one extra year cuts its lifetime CO2 impact by a third”. Japan, hosts of the 2020 Olympics, seems to agree as they are considering using salvaged e-waste material to make medals for the Games.

Many modern products, including smartphones, can be repaired. But they are designed to discourage a mend-it mentality – take a close look at the tiny tamper-proof Pentalobe screws locking you out of your iPhone, and then wonder what you’ll do when the battery fails. We are conditioned by the relentless release of “improved” models to buy a new one.

Apple is not insensitive to environmental issues. In its 2016 Environmental Response Report, published in April, it celebrated the fact that 93 per cent of the energy it used worldwide came from renewable sources and that in the past five years it had reduced Apple’s carbon footprint by 64 per cent. Furthermore, it said, “in 2015, we collected nearly 90 million pounds of e-waste through our recycling programs. That’s 71 per cent of the total weight of the products we sold seven years earlier”.

A journalist for Vice channel Motherboard however, concluded that "almost nothing about the [media's subsequent] 'Apple harvests gold from iPhones' stories was true". The truth was that Apple, in line with corporate environmental responsibility practices, had "paid independent recyclers to recycle old electronics, which were almost never Apple products," and were most likely old PCs and TV sets, the report said.

As the company was winning glowing headlines around the world after unveiling Liam, a recycling robot that can take apart a million iPhones a year, Greenpeace pointed out that this was nothing compared with the 231 million iPhones sold last year. At the end of 2015, thousands of iPhone users who had damaged their handsets or had them repaired by anyone other than Apple took to the company’s online support forums to complain that the latest software update, iOS 9, had disabled their phones.

"All along, Apple's view is that it does not want third parties carrying out repairs to its products and this looks like an obvious extension of that," Kyle Wiens, who runs the online repair community iFixit, told The Guardian. Apple admitted as much. A spokesperson said "an unrecoverable error 53" would occur "when an iPhone is serviced by an unauthorised repair provider [or there are] faulty screens or other invalid components", because of built-in security to prevent "a malicious touch ID sensor [being] substituted".

Not everyone is taking this lying down. There’s a growing DIY repair movement, of which the standard bearer is iFixit, an online “global repair community of people helping each other fix their stuff”. The company makes its money selling tools and parts and was set up in California in 2003. Its global army of more than a million members have written and posted more than 22,000 free manuals and offered solutions to problems in 6,500 devices.

Unsurprisingly, Apple’s products are the number one subject of the iFixit community’s inventiveness. And iFixit is not popular with its big neighbour in downtown Cupertino. In 2014, it gave away free tools to overcome the Pentalobe screws and was last year kicked off the App Store.

Others have followed. Seven years ago the first Repair Cafe opened in Amsterdam; now there are more than 1,120 in 27 countries, including the Middle East’s first – in Cairo. The idea is simple: just drop in with your broken stuff and, with the help of the resident specialists, buy a coffee and start making repairs.

“We throw away vast amounts of stuff, even things with almost nothing wrong,” says a spokesperson for the non-profit organisation. Repairing instead of ditching keeps repair skills alive in the community and “reduces the volume of raw materials and energy needed to make new product”.

Nothing about a throwaway consumer society, of course, is compatible with the sustainability that climate scientists say is vital if life on Earth is to continue as we know it. Last Saturday, more than 150 countries agreed to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), gases used in refrigeration and air conditioning which are said to be the fastest-growing cause of global warming. Some European countries will start to limit HFC use by 2019; others, including India, Iran and the Gulf states, will not start until 2028. These gases are released when appliances are scrapped.

The hope among supporters of the so-called "maker movement" is that it will "create a cadre of confident consumers eager to choose appliances they can fix", wrote Dan Lockton, a design lecturer at the Royal College of Art in London, in The Guardian in 2013. This in turn could create "an opportunity for businesses to focus on consumers who want something not just that lasts but which they can fix themselves and understand".

A perhaps more realistic approach is being considered by the Swedish government, which in December will put to parliament a scheme to introduce tax breaks to encourage consumers to pay to repair rather than replace anything from washing machines to shoes.

But taking on throwaway society is to take on a deeply entrenched dynamic of capitalist economics that dates back a century. Obsolescence was "a uniquely American invention", wrote Giles Slade, the social critic, in his 2007 book Made to Break, but it is now a global reality. And, as manufacturers everywhere cottoned on and "learned how to exploit obsolescence", so consumers "increasingly accepted it in every aspect of their lives".

It comes to us in three different forms. The first is technological, in which obsolescence is created by a technological breakthrough, such as the invention of the electric starter motor, which overnight put paid to hand-cranked cars. Next comes psychological, in which a manufacturer persuades consumers to abandon perfectly serviceable items on the grounds of newness alone.

In 2015, an astonishing 32 per cent of US iPhone owners upgraded. There was passing outrage at the disappearance of the headphone jack on the latest iPhone 7 but last week analysts predicted that the new phone, launched in September, would help Apple’s sales to grow by 8 per cent next year.

Last is planned obsolescence – designing stuff so it breaks or becomes unusable. Apple and many other tech companies make slick products that don’t break that often. But constant tinkering with software can be effective way of regenerating sales and, between regular product launches, Apple, and other companies, does this all the time.

The fact that these upgrades are free should not be mistaken for benevolence. Proving that they are a Trojan horse, however, is something else. In 2010 one customer, incensed that her iPhone 3G had been rendered “virtually unusable” by a system upgrade, took the company to court, accusing it of conspiring to “underhandedly create incentive to purchase a newer product ... by essentially rendering an earlier product useless”.

The suit was thrown out on the technicality that, because it had been free, the software upgrade was not covered by the terms of California’s Consumers Legal Remedies Act.

Technologically speaking, it doesn’t have to be this way – it is possible to build stuff that not only lasts but is useful for a lifetime. There is a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling of a fire station in the city of Livermore, California, that has been workingfor more than 115 years. It was made in the late 1890s by the Shelby Electric Company in Ohio and has burnt for the best part of a million hours. Compare this to the lifespan of the average incandescent bulb today – about 1,500 hours. Even the much-vaunted LED bulb gives up the ghost after about 30,000 hours.

It was lightbulbs, in fact, which introduced the concept of planned obsolescence. In 1924, the world’s lightbulb manufacturers – including General Electric (which had taken over the Shelby Electric Company) – met in Geneva. It was the world’s first global cartel, created to fix both the prices and the lifespans of bulbs.

In 2010 Dr Markus Krajewski, a professor of media studies at the University of Basel, discovered damning evidence of the practice in the archives of German company Osram. Prior to the cartel’s formation, he later wrote, “household bulbs typically burned for a total of 1,500 to 2,500 hours. Cartel members agreed to shorten that life span to a standard 1,000 hours” – and to charge more for the bulbs. Thus was born “the industrial strategy now known as planned obsolescence” At the height of the Great Depression, some even argued that planned obsolescence should be legislated for. Among them was Bernard London, a Russian-American property developer who in a 1932 urged the US government to “assign a lease of life to … all products of manufacture”. After the allotted time had expired, “these things would be legally ‘dead’ and would be … destroyed”. The idea didn’t catch up but from dodgy lightbulb manufacturers to today’s tech companies, industry has perfected its methods for keeping us coming back for more of the same.

The dust has barely settled on last month’s iPhone 7 launch and yet analysts are looking forward to next year’s feature-packed 10-anniversary iPhone 8, about which rumours are already circulating. It won’t be long, in other words, before your shiny new iPhone 7 is gathering dust in the drawer along with all your other old, but perfectly serviceable, iPhones.

Bernard London, the 1930s prophet of planned obsolescence, would have been proud of you.

Jonathan Gornall is a regular contributor to The National.