Ninety-nine years ago, a group of leading manufacturers — among them Germany’s Osram, France’s Compagnie des Lampes, the Netherlands’ Philips, and the USA’s General Electric — gathered in Geneva, Switzerland for a meeting that would change the world.
I know that sounds a little dramatic, but this group of lightbulb manufacturers quite literally changed the economy with a concept now known as planned obsolescence. But to better understand why that is and what the Great Lightbulb Conspiracy means for us today, let’s go back another century.
The Birth of Planned Obsolescence
The first lightbulb was invented in 1802 by British chemist Sir Humphry Davy. This early design ran electricity through a thin strip of platinum to create light, but was not practical nor commercially viable enough to mass produce.
It took a few more decades for designers to discover carbonized bamboo filament, and later on, tungsten filaments, to create better lightbulbs that could illuminate more homes, offices, and factories around the world.
But solving the problem of material selection in product design brought about another problem for bulb manufacturers: By the 1920s, many were having a hard time generating profit because of the intense competition in the market and the quality of the lightbulbs they were producing.
Decades of experimenting and tinkering gave rise to bulbs that lasted years — the Centennial Light in Livermore, California, for example, has been burning since 1901 — and that proved to be a terrible thing for companies trying to sell people lightbulbs.
Their solution? A cartel. In 1924, executives from the likes of Osram, Philips, Tungsram, Associated Electrical Industries, Compagnie des Lampes, and General Electric gathered in a meeting officially called the “Convention for the Development and Progress of the International Incandescent Electric Lamp Industry.”
That’s a bit of a mouthful, and so the companies found a name for themselves that sounded much cooler: Phoebus, which was Latin and Greek for “bright.”
Officially, the Phoebus Cartel was dedicated to the “effectiveness of electric lighting and increasing light use to the advantage of the consumer.” This meant that they initiated things like standardizing bulb sockets across manufacturers. But not everything they did was exactly pro-consumer, and this was clearest in the formation of the “1,000 Hours Life Committee,” which was tasked to make lower-quality light bulbs the market standard.
Under the supervision of the committee, an audit system required the world’s largest lightbulb manufacturers to send sample lightbulbs to a Swiss laboratory where technicians checked their lifespans. The goal was to have sample bulbs last between 800 and 1,750 hours.
Fines were imposed on manufacturers whose sample bulbs lasted between 1,750 and 2,000 hours — to the tune of 20 Swiss francs per 1,000 bulbs sold. If sample bulbs lasted over 3,000 hours, the cartel fined the offending manufacturer at the rate of 200 Swiss francs per 1,000 bulbs sold.
This audit system, which was the foundation of the Great Lightbulb Conspiracy, was so effective that the average lifespan of a lightbulb went from 2,500 hours to 1,200 within a decade of the cartel’s formation. People then had to buy lightbulbs more often, and the manufacturers were happy.
The Phoebus Cartel was supposed to last thirty years, or until 1955, but the outbreak of World War II meant that they had to cease operations by the early 1940s. However, despite its shortened existence, the cartel’s legacy remains to this day: Most incandescent bulbs have a lifespan of around 1,000 hours.
Not Built to Last: Beyond Lightbulbs
More generally, however, the Phoebus Cartel’s legacy lies in the concept of planned obsolescence, which spread from the lightbulb industry to the rest of the consumer economy.
With planned obsolescence, manufacturers were no longer competing to create the best product that would benefit consumers the most. Instead, they learned to create products that would become obsolete or unusable after a known time period. This ensures that consumers will buy more of the same thing in the future — thereby creating demand that would boost revenues.
The idea was quick to spread.
Alfred P. Sloan, president of General Motors between 1923 and 1937, launched new car styles and colors every year — a first for the automotive industry, and a move he called “dynamic obsolescence.” To ensure that sales kept moving, General Motors was the first to tell consumers that it wasn’t enough to own one car in your lifetime; you’ll have to buy several.
In 1932, real estate broker Bernard London argued that planned obsolescence was the key to ending the Great Depression. He proposed that all manufactured products should be given an expiration date, and items that go past this date are “legally dead” and must be returned to the government to be destroyed. People would then have to buy new things, which meant more jobs would be created and, he wrote, “the wheels of industry would be kept going.”
In 1954, industrial designer Brooks Stevens further popularized planned obsolescence and highlighted its role in advertising, where companies should be, “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”
Some industries have taken this advice to heart more than others.
For instance, smartphones’ lifespans are largely limited by the lifespans of their batteries, which aren’t easy to replace. I’m old enough to remember a time when I could pop open my cellphone’s case and take out the battery myself, but most phones today don’t let you do that anymore. What’s more, some phones simply stop receiving software security updates as time goes on.
Newer but Not Better
My mom’s rice cooker lasted us 10 years. Our latest, which was from the same brand and had roughly the same look, lasted one year. Planned obsolescence had a hand in that.
The concept has found a cozy home in consumerism: A company “grows” when they sell more, and that means catering to an audience of people who are encouraged to buy more and at low prices — no matter what.
A Linear Model
Because growth is defined by companies as how much of a thing they can sell, there is little to no focus on repair and service. Thus, planned obsolescence dictates that everything goes from factories to homes, and finally, to landfills in the shortest amount of time possible. For instance, parts for appliances can be really hard to come by and are not interchangeable across different models.
Many new appliances come with fancy new features like touch screens. But what they don’t come with is proper maintenance infrastructure or repair services for when those features break down. They might also have warranties and policies that emphasize replacement, rather than repair.
All the while, companies’ upward-trending graphs, and impressive bottom lines do not take into account massive pollution and depleted natural resources.
If a company’s goal is to keep selling more things every single year, then there’s no point in designing for durability and repair. This is especially noticeable in electronics, which are nearly impossible to repair without a bill that rivals the price of a new unit.
Some models are deliberately designed to prevent repair, like when pieces are welded together to make it hard to open up a device without breaking it. Other models come with batteries that have a limited lifespan. These batteries can’t be easily replaced and affects the performance of the entire device.
Even software can be tweaked for planned obsolescence. In the case of electronics like smartphones and laptops, certain models can be made unusable by simply stopping all software updates.
Design and Materials
Sometimes, the drive to keep costs down (and demand up) can lead to worse designs overall.
One notorious example is Apple’s butterfly keyboard. Though the butterfly design — which featured a hinge in the center attached to the two halves of a key — meant that the laptop was cheaper to produce and lighter to carry around, it also meant that dust and debris had a lot of space to build up. The result? Keys got stuck all the time, and the entire thing was so fragile that just a little piece of debris was a major threat. Keys would simply stop working, or would type in double letters.
Plus, because of the way the MacBook is designed, replacing a single key meant having to take your laptop to the nearest repair center to be entirely disassembled.
The same issue can be found in the world of fashion. Good, high-quality clothing doesn’t come cheap. But to keep demand up, manufacturers have turned to cheaper synthetic fabrics that fall apart a lot easier than natural ones like silk, cotton, and wool. Other ways companies might cut corners include more fragile clasps or buttons, exposed zippers, a lack of lining, and haphazardly sewn seams.
After fast fashion came the rise of fast furniture, which is exactly what it sounds like. It bears all the hallmarks of planned obsolescence we’ve seen so far in tech and fashion: cheap, extremely hard to repair, and built to be replaced. As a result, the EPA estimates that as of 2018, some 9 million tons of furniture are thrown into landfills every single year.
Low Wages and Poor Working Conditions
Aside from what things are made of, another area companies have cut corners in is who makes our things, and how.
In California alone, 85% of garment workers don’t earn the minimum wage and are paid a measly 2-6 cents per piece. Many work up to 70 hours a week in unsafe and poorly ventilated factories. Even worse conditions are experienced by workers elsewhere, particularly in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia, where most fast fashion garments are made.
These workers bear the cost of non-stop growth fueled by planned obsolescence. The constant pursuit of profit has made it much easier to buy cheap new items than to simply repair old ones, but the end result is that we’re buying more garments that we use fewer times than ever before.
I don’t know if the folks at the Phoebus Cartel foresaw any of this happening nearly a century ago. Maybe a few did, or maybe they were too focused on trying to sell as many lightbulbs as possible. Either way, they lit the way towards present-day planned obsolescence, and we have to deal with it.
Not that doing so is very easy. Resisting the pressure to keep buying new things can be rather hard if, because of planned obsolescence, so many of the things we use every day are built to fail and to be irreparable once they do.
Plus, not everyone can afford to buy high-quality things, so many have suggested turning to reclaimed furniture, thrifted vintage clothing, and even small disruptors like Fairphone, a company that creates repairable phones made out of sustainable materials. Learning small fixes and DIY repairs can also be empowering.
But really, the onus is on industries to turn things around — and governments to make them actually do it. After all, though individual action can be good, it’s far from enough to overturn entire industries built on planned obsolescence. And here, some baby steps are being made.
German lawmakers, for instance, are pushing a bill that would address planned obsolescence in software, requiring manufacturers to provide cell phone security updates for at least seven years. Meanwhile, the EU has established consumers’ right to repair, which ensures that people could have products repaired free of charge for up to two years from the moment they buy a product. Similar bills are being developed in at least 25 American states — to mixed success.
Wherever you are in the world, it’s important that governments hold manufacturers and retailers accountable for the full lifecycle of their products. It’s also important to fight for fair labor standards that can better protect the workers who create what we buy.
Lastly, I’d like to go back to the story of the Phoebus Cartel and the birth of planned obsolescence at a time when the US government has phased out incandescent lights (whose quality the cartel had worked so hard to impair after decades of improvements) in favor of LED bulbs (that would cut carbon emissions and last a whopping 50,000 to 100,000 hours).
So here’s a thought: What happens when today’s LED manufacturers decide — as capitalism and consumerism would nudge them to — that they need people to buy more LEDs?
Of course, we live in a completely different time from when leading manufacturers collectively decided to make their products worse, but I think that governments really do need to learn from what happened in 1924, unless we want history to repeat itself.