The last [X] you'll ever buy

Or, why planned obsolescence is some serious bullshit

Cast iron pans hanging on the interior wall of a wood log cabin.
Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

Whenever people talk about the “good old days,” I have to stop myself from rolling my eyes.

Because apart from the very real and scary impacts of climate change, which are likely to get worse before they get better (as well as the creeping fascism and widening inequality, ‘cause that’s super fun 🙄), by many measures, humanity is collectively enjoying a higher quality of life than we've ever experienced since we stopped being hunter-gathers and decided to hunker down and give farming a go some ~12,000 years ago.

We eat better food than at any previous point in our history. We’re healthier and live so much longer. Our working conditions are so much better. There’s more freedom and equality. Many people have a much greater circle of empathy. We have more leisure time and instant access to much of the world’s collective knowledge.

But there is one area where previous generations absolutely have us beat…

And that’s in the durability and long-lastingness of their STUFF.

Planned Obsolescence is a BS Business Model that All of Us Should be Raging About

In my kitchen right now, I have:

  • A Dutch oven and saucepan that belonged to my husband’s grandmother and came with a lifetime guarantee when she bought them in the 1950s – then were fully refurbished to like-new condition 40-plus years later by the manufacturer.
  • Another Dutch oven and saucepan that a relative bought in the 90s then passed onto me a couple of years later because she didn't like how heavy they were – and are still in perfect condition today.
  • Three cast-iron frying pans that were used for decades in a junior-high school cooking class before being given to my husband and me about 20 years ago. Again, in perfect condition.
  • A massive cast-iron wok that will outlive us all.

I love cooking with all of these pots and pans so much. Not only are they super solid and always make me feel like I’m getting a half-decent arm workout when I use them (multitasking!), I know they're the last ones that I will likely ever own. I’ll never have to buy another because they will never need to be replaced. Like I said, the oldest two of them even came with a *literal* lifetime guarantee and a manufacturer’s offer to repair any damage that may occur over time.

When I think about that – about a product that was literally advertised as “the last cookware you’ll ever need to buy!” and has proven the claims true – and contrast it to so much of the stuff that is sold today, it’s hard not to get just a wee bit ragey.

I’ve never had a food processor last as long as the one I inherited from my mom in the late 90s that had already seen almost two decades of use before I got my hands on it. And when I think about the clothes I’ve bought that fell apart in less than a year… tech devices and electronics that stopped working shortly after the warranty expired… shoes that become unwearable after just a few months… tools and appliances that gave up the ghost far too soon… and long-desired toys that broke hours after being unboxed, cracking my kids’ hearts in the process – it’s frustrating, to say the least.

ESPECIALLY when you consider that the cheap quality and speedy demise of so many products is intentional!

Planned obsolescence is a recognized strategy that many companies build into their business models. They intentionally make their products more breakable so that it forces their customers to buy replacements more often, boosting the company’s bottom line and increasing profits for their shareholders.

It’s so gross.

What makes it incalculably worse is the impact this practice has not only on our pocketbooks, but on the environment around us. Every year, humanity throws out…

That’s 250 kg per person of solid waste going into municipal landfills every year! Not to mention the emissions and pollutants that are produced in their manufacture and transport, etc.

Clearly, this is a horrific waste of resources – and the production, transportation, use, and disposal of all this stuff is having a devastating impact on our planet and our health. And despite what traditional economists will try to tell you about the importance and inescapability of “limitless growth,” it doesn’t have to be this way.

Limitless growth is just a story we tell ourselves

As Kate Raworth says in her book, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a Twenty-First Century Economist, modern economic theory is based on textbooks from the 1950s based on theories from the 1850s based on a mechanical conception on the world conceptualized by Isaac Newton in the 1600s. It doesn’t describe our actual reality but is grounded in rigid, too-simple mechanistic thinking that doesn’t begin to adequately describe the complexity of constantly shifting and evolving systems that comprise our modern economy.

It’s not just a matter of supply and demand, with Adam Smith’s  invisible hand achieving some sort of equilibrium between the two. It’s about how our wants and needs and capacities and relationships and beliefs evolve. Not to mention the impact that governments, banks, and billions of dollars in marketing can have on what people buy, the kind of work they do, and the compensation they get for that work.

The point is, the idea that economies have to grow endlessly in order to be healthy is not based on proven and immutable facts – it’s just a story we tell ourselves.

Which means it’s a story we can change.

Let’s Make Durability Sexy Again

If we are to save the planet and ourselves from climate catastrophe and learn how to live in greater balance and harmony within the natural systems that make up our planetary biosphere, we have to make do with less.

That doesn’t have to mean giving up the tools, apparel, appliances, and toys we rely on to make our lives easier, more comfortable, and more fun.

It means getting rid of the things we DON’T need – the things we bought on a whim and never used. The things that only add pointless clutter to our homes as well as the things that constantly have to be replaced because they were intentionally built not to last.

The first step to creating a world without garbage is encourage everyone to stop buying garbage. And the best way to do that is to make it easier for everyone to buy QUALITY instead of quantity and foster a “less is more” and “experiences over things” mindset as a core value of the community.

This could be my own historical propensity towards clutter accumulation speaking, but: Wouldn’t it be cool to have everything you needed to live a really great life – and not much else besides?

“But high-quality items that last are too expensive for most people to buy!”    

That’s a valid argument! Nobody has said it better than Captain Vimes in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, with his “Boots Theory of Economic Unfairness”:

It’s true that many high-quality, durable goods are too expensive for many, if not most, people to buy. But that doesn’t mean this is a necessary and inescapable aspect of the human condition!

We have more than enough resources on the planet to comfortably feed, clothe, and house every person on the planet WITHOUT destroying the climate or the environment. All we have to do is shift from a socio-economic model that vastly over-values and over-prioritizes the needs of a very privileged few to one that meets the needs of the many and allows the maximum number of people to thrive – not in competition but collaboration with each other and the natural world around them.  

I know… Easier said than done. But just because it hasn’t been done (yet) doesn’t mean it CAN’T be done.

“But GDP is the primary measure of a healthy nation!”

Not only is that statement not true – it is a messed-up concept that has done a huge amount of damage to society and the planet. Just because economists have used GDP as a way to evaluate the relative “health” of a nation since the 1950s, that doesn’t mean this metric tells us anything at all about the actual health, happiness, freedom, or overall quality of life enjoyed by its citizens.

To paraphrase Kate Raworth again, a healthy economy is one that’s designed to provide for the wellbeing of society, not merely “grow.” Our focus should always be to ensure that people are thriving, regardless of whether GDP is increasing – not to ensure GDP is increasing, regardless of whether people are thriving.

It isn’t “growth” that’s the primary driver of our success as a nation. It’s EVOLUTION. Advancement. Improvement. It’s not about having “more” – it’s about having better.

The upshot is, if we want to create a healthier, more harmonious world, we need to adopt a different economic model. One that prioritizes living in balance with the environment instead of plundering it (and exploiting each other in the process).

We have to get back to the days when companies would promise that their product would be “The Last [X] You’ll Ever Need to Buy” and actually MEAN IT. Because the sooner we are all able to embody quality over quantity in our values, work, and purchasing habits, the better off the entire world will be.

Want to go deeper?

Check out these resources:

Doughnut Economics: How to Think Like a 21st Century Economist by Kate Raworth (Seriously. Everyone should read this book or at least familarize themselves with the concepts.)

TIPPING POINT: The True Story of “The Limits to Growth” (a three-episode podcast created by Katy Shields and Vegard Beyer)

EU votes to support a directive aimed at improving product durability by banning planned obsolescence (European Parliament News)

Interview: The True Story of France’s Fight Against Planned Obsolescence (Buy Me Once)

Quebec introduces a bill to fight planned obsolescence (IT World Canada)

Goodbye Neoliberalism, Hello Doughnut (Washington University Political Review)

Economists Who Say the Planet Has Infinite Resources Are Today’s Flat Earth Society (Yes! Magazine)

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