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Is it possible to recognize products that have been designed and manufactured with built-in or programmed obsolescence in mind, before I buy them? Are there guidelines how to recognize such products? Or can I find a list of typical products/brands to avoid somewhere?

Some examples of products I am currently aware of that have planned obsolescence:

  • some ink cartridge manufacturers program their cartridges to stop printing after a certain number of pages.
  • many cell phone manufacturers regularly change the plug for recharging the battery or connecting other accessories such as earphones, making old chargers/earphones obsolete.

but I suspect the list of products isn't limited to electronics.

Note that I am not interested in 'perceived or style obsolescence' here, but only in products that somehow cannot be used anymore after a certain time, which could be avoided if those products were designed a little better.

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  • 2
    there should be a website that lists expected obsolescence per product
    – user3070
    Feb 15, 2016 at 18:24
  • I have had my panasonic cordless phone for 3 years. It has been losing battery power and cutting off, so I bought the special batteries for it. They are not helping! Phone is constantly saying 'charging' and will not last more than a few mins call before it cuts off. It has to be the base unit. Very annoying. Just because one can replace the batteries does not mean it is exempt from planned obsolescence. There is truly no way to know. Even with expensive coffee machines Ive had this.
    – user3329
    Apr 24, 2016 at 14:48
  • There is one, but it's in French. I asked if they were planning to make it multilingual.
    – J. Chomel
    May 3, 2016 at 14:23
  • If your goal is to simply reduce unnecessary waste, try to buy less-gimmicky items. Don't get a 1080p smart TV if you have a 1080p regular TV. Buy a Roku or something. Don't buy items with a lot of unnecessary tech/moving parts (many modern vehicles). Don't buy items with rapidly-evolving tech (unless you don't mind if it gets outdated). Don't buy the new iPhone because it has a fingerprint sensor on both sides or the camera's resolution is 13% bigger. A lot of products aren't designed to fail, but are planned on being replaced. I have a 2nd gen Echo dot and am resisting getting gen 3 because.
    – Greg
    Nov 21, 2018 at 12:34
  • Here's a big one: get rid of your mobile and use a landline exclusively. Quality and reliability is far superior, and huge reduction in carbon emissions, rare earth minerals consumption, slave labor, etc. etc. May 26, 2020 at 19:00

8 Answers 8

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Warranties

Keep an eye out for products that have long warranties. When the warranty is short you can expect a short average time until failure.

Parts

Look for products that have generic parts, especially when the part is expected to fail sooner than the rest of the device. One good example I can think of is cordless landline phones by Panasonic that use rechargeable AAA batteries in the handsets rather than a proprietary battery that would be much more expensive to replace.

Fashion

Industries designing for fashion essentially try to promote particular styles of product as fashionable for a season, knowing full well that it leads to increased sales but also leads to items being discarded before their useful life is up. When it comes to clothing, furniture and other products designed with attention to their appearance, look for classic styles that have been around for years, and for durability and function.

Books

Paperback books are cheaper to buy, but are not particularly durable and have a much shorter life than hardcover ones. If when purchasing a book, you believe it is likely to be used heavily or be of value for more than say 10 years, then consider spending extra to purchase a hardcover.

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  • 2
    Nice answer! I guess when it comes to parts the first requirement is that the product can be opened at all (is not welded or something) As for books, I read somewhere that college education books often are reprinted with only minor changes so new students have to buy new editions.
    – THelper
    Jan 14, 2015 at 9:02
  • 3
    Especially furniture from brands like IKEA have a low durability. You have to look for oak or other hardwood, indeed items that have been here for over a century will last another generation too. Or, make it yourself by using hardwood. Another aspect to look for is pricing. If it looks cheap, is cheap and feels cheap, it probably is cheap and won't last long.
    – Aschwin
    Jan 16, 2015 at 9:25
  • 2
    Documentation - look for how well a product is documented, do you find all the info to repair it?
    – mart
    Feb 17, 2016 at 8:22
  • The price may also serve as indicator. Cheap products tend to be less fixable. Feb 22, 2016 at 17:05
  • 1
    For specific products there are reparability scores online: ifixit.com/smartphone_repairability Feb 22, 2016 at 17:09
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One thing not explicitly mentioned in Highly Irregular's answer:

If you can buy the product online or in a physical store, choose for the store.

This lets you investigate with your hands and eyes. Photos on websites often do not show that a product is assembled out of cheap parts, that its finish is cheap paint, etc.

If you e.g. want to buy a stereo and it has wobbly plastic controls, you know it can't be high quality.
Or it can be as simple as weighing an object: a heavy ice scoop ;-) is probably better than a lightweight one.

I also dare to generalize and say that local stores where you can talk to people provide better service/warranties than an online shop.

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In France they're trying to build a site referencing planned-obsolescence products: http://www.halteobsolescence.org/ . Maybe we could build the same or help them go worldwide (at least by translating it). I asked them if they had an English version, and will update when they answer.

The principle of this site is that users can alert if a product is fragile, and on the contrary they also can promote long-lasting ones. But I think the stack-exchange format could greatly benefit this site, because we know nothing on the users that promote the products.

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  • Just noticed today there now is an English version of the website you mentioned: stopobsolescence.org
    – THelper
    Sep 21, 2020 at 7:29
4

Before you go shopping – whether on-line or bricks-and-mortar – inform yourself about the product in question and keep an open mind about alternative ways of achieving whatever it is you ultimately want the product for.

How to get information

It pays to check reviews in magazines (possibly on-line) about the products you are interested in. You may be able to glean useful information even from reviews that are not primarily environmentally oriented.

Familiarise yourself with the various labels used in your country, some of which may give the impression of evaluating the environmental aspects of products while actually being more concerned with other ethical aspects such as fair trade or animal welfare, or just with quality; some are almost pure eyewash and merely stand for producers’ associations.

One can also – of course! – ask questions here, though I am not sure how we view questions about specific brands or products.

Sources of information

I am familiar with the situation in Germany, but perhaps others can contribute similar tips for other countries – I have marked this as community wiki.

Many of the labels given in the information for Germany are internationally used, and the NABU judgement on them (thumbs-up/-down etc.) can be understood without reading German, though that is needed to understand the detailed evaluation.

In Germany

  • Look at the reviews in the magazine Öko-Test (German Wikipedia article) Their web-site is http://www.oekotest.de/ .
    • Bear in mind that Öko-Test often evaluates products from the point of view of consumers’ health rather than environmental impact.
  • For a gallery of labels evaluated for their significance for the environment, see http://siegelcheck.nabu.de/ by the German environmental organisation NABU. This labels the labels as below. Clicking on a label tells you more about the criteria it represents and how the NABU regards it.
    • Genuinely green: one or two green thumbs-up
    • Sometimes helpful: a sideways thumb
    • Allows no conclusions about environment impact: (no thumb)
    • To be avoided: a red thumbs-down
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I'm a newbie, so please forgive my just dumping a few ideas here...

The hinge on the freezer department/ice tray door in the top of your fridge is a weak point, no-one ever defrosted the freezer box regularly so when it backs up a little, with frost and ice but you still want the fish fingers? Then you force it and the little plastic hinge on one side or the other breaks, the seal never works properly again and the sensor ramps up the motor to keep the temperature right down, so it fills with ice quicker than it ever did. Moral of the story - buy a fridge without an ice box in the top, it won't self destruct AND YOU GET AN EXTRA SHELF!

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  • Hi Dain and welcome to Sustainability.SE! Not sure if you meant to post two answers, but you could combine this information about refrigerators with your previous answer on sink/vanity units by editing your previous answer.
    – LShaver
    Oct 11, 2018 at 20:02
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As mentioned by other members there are some websites that do the selection for you. One that isn't mentioned yet is BuyMeOnce.

Please note that this a commercial webshop that has found an interesting niche of consumers who (at least think they) care.

So the criteria behind the choice of the stuff they are showing or selling is not really transparent of course, there could be some product-placement-sponsoring behind this... But they claim to co-operate with ifixit. It can give us some ideas, that credit we have to give them.

Always keep some own logic in mind (as explained by other members here) before making a choice. Especially do not replace a working non-durable thing by a durable one before it has broken down and cannot be fixed, and buy it somewhere in your neighborhood.

PS: I would rather have made this a comment but not enough reputation yet ;-)

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Sink units/Vanity units

When you buy a flat pack unit, find the really thin screw and nut that goes down thru the ctr of the plug drain which pulls the waste water elbow up to the seal on the underside of the sink. Replace this screw and nut with stainless copies. The sink might be stainless but this screw and nut are usually supllied cheap anodised and will rust out, but you won't know until the flood that comes after the drain elbow drops away. The shelf below the sink is chipboard with a cheap covering, the water gets into the chipboard so it expands and bursts the shelf out along the edges - it's never the same unit again and is much closer to the skip/dumpster as a result.

Just a replacement screw and nut to fix the inbuilt obsolescence.

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  • Thanks for your answer, but I'm more interested in general rules and guidelines. Not specific examples. I guess we can summarize your post with 'check for stainless steel screws for everything that regularly gets wet'
    – THelper
    Oct 22, 2018 at 6:37
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Well..... This is a tough subject for those of us who understand the problems associated with the circuit boards in almost every consumer product out there.

When we purchased many of our products in the "dark ages" before the advent of led lights, buzzers, glitzy features, etc. there were little to no power or controller type motherboards in these devices.

With the advent of everything needing to be "shiny" or powered, it is almost for sure there will be at least a small motherboard that provides the power, controls the device or flashes the lights.

On these boards, in most cases there are small components called capacitors, resistors and thermal protectors. Capacitors have a gel like substance inside that eventually dries up and the capacitor weakens or fails. In many cases, just by looking at the capacitors on say a power supply for an led TV, one can see a bulging or leaking area on the component. Thermal protectors and resistors can just plainly fail.

That said, with a little bit of electronic knowledge, a soldering iron, the research to identify the capacitor, finding and ordering the capacitor (usually in lots of 10-100 and a little bit of patience, planned obsolescence (usually in the 5-8 year time frame) can be obverted.

That said, considering the actual low price of most electronic devices (say your average clock radio, printer, can opener) and even into your larger electronics (big screen TV, phones, computers and major appliances) consider the above time and cost at maybe a nominal $75/hour or on major appliances up to $200 per hour, you will never be able to afford to have a technician come in and "fix" the issue. Much more cost effective to replace the device.

And there you have it - Planned or Programmed obsolescence.

Here is example: On GE Profile washers manufactured around 2008 there is an electromagnetic clutch that is engaged basically with an electronic magnet that is protected by a $0.42 (yes 42 cent) thermal protector (one time fuse) that fails if you happen to leave the lid open during the cycle. The full clutch is what most technicians will charge at $175 plus the 2 hours at $125 to replace it in the main mechanism. Now there is a choice - at least $425 to fix it or find a new one for $700 to replace the 12 year old washer. What do you think most consumers choose. Even to replace the 42 cent part takes the 2 hours to replace plus another hour to solder in the part plus whatever time it took to diagnose, order and receive the part.

If you are going to attack planned obsolescence, you will have to begin by stopping the production of crappy capacitors (components), then build controller boards that don't rely on those failing devices (in the case of the washer, put in a resetting thermal protector) or just don't get electronic devices that will eventually fail.

AND EVENTUALLY OUR LANDFILLS AND OCEANS WILL BE FULL OF BURNED OUR ELECTRONICS (much more dangerous than global warming or climate change).

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  • So are you saying that any device containing capacitors or thermal protectors are designed with planned obsolescence ? It's interesting but it does not really help chosing between such products so I think it misses a little bit the point of the question
    – Axel B
    Dec 21, 2021 at 11:54

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