Planned vs. Perceived Obsolescence

I recently watched the film Story of Stuff, which is a film about the lifecycle of material goods. While the video has its biases and has thus become politically controversial, I still think the video is worth viewing with a critical mind. There is some good debate on the film’s Wikipedia page, I don’t want to get into it here.

One thing that I did like was her discussion of planned vs. perceived obsolescence. Here are the definitions from the film glossary:

Planned obsolescence: designing and producing products in order for them to be used up (obsolete) within a specific time period. Products may be designed for obsolescence either through function, like a paper coffee cup or a machine with breakable parts, or through “desirability,” like a piece of clothing made for this year’s fashion and then replaced by something totally different next year. Planned obsolescence is also known as “design for the dump.”

Perceived obsolescence: the part of planned obsolescence that refers to “desirability”. In other words, an object may continue to be functional, but it is no longer perceived to be stylish or appropriate, so it is rendered obsolete by perception, rather than by function. Fashion is all about perceived obsolescence, and it could be said that perceived obsolescence is the number one “product” of the advertising industry.

Non-Consumer Alarm!
This made me think about how companies have made easy it is to identify “non-consumers”, which usually leads to them being mocked somehow. Let’s take cars. Models change very often, even if just slightly, so it’s very easy to tell that my car is 10 or 15 years old. My wife and I are often told by our friends and family that our cars don’t match our job titles/income levels. Same with cell phones. If your phone doesn’t have at least a QWERTY keyboard these days, it’s a freaking antique.

As for clothes, I’m always happy that I’m a guy because my closet of long-sleeved dress shirts, cotton polo shirts, slightly baggy jeans, and cargo shorts have managed to last me for over a decade now. Meanwhile, to be a mainstream woman, you went from flare jeans to low-ride jeans to the new thing – skinny jeans. I won’t even go into shoes (UGGs??).

Try it next time you’re in a crowded area, at work, or visit someone’s house. See if you can pick out who hasn’t bought the newest version of something in the last few years.

*You can either watch the video in Flash at the main site or below on YouTube. The part about planned vs. perceived obsolescence is at 12:35 (total length: 20 minutes).

Comments

  1. Using “Story of Stuff” as reference material has totally changed my opinion of your site. I know you gave a disclaimer but saying this film “has its biases” is an understatement. It is designed to brainwash our children, which is unacceptable.

    I guess I’ll have one less RSS feed to read after this.

  2. “My wife and I are often told by our friends and family that our cars don’t match our job titles/income levels.”

    Really? You need to find less rude friends (although I guess you are stuck with your family). I have never, ever had someone say such a thing to me – perhaps because they know that I am a person who doesn’t follow the crowd or give a flying fig what others think of me!

    For example, at the last party we went to, I was telling everyone about the great 4 pair of pants I bought at Goodwill for $20 — not one negative comment from anyone. I would estimate that everyone at that party had a household income between $100k and $200k (like we do).

  3. I drive a 1990 Geo Prizm. Bought used in the early 90′s.

    Every time I run into someone I haven’t seen in a while they all say the same thing.

    “You still driving that piece of shit?”

    Yeah, I am. That piece of shit is reliable as hell, cheap to maintain, gets decent mileage and the air blows really cold. Unlike others, I don’t (and won’t) perceive any obsolescence when it comes to my car.

  4. The Wikipedia page is amusing in the sense that the distortions made in the video are ridiculous, such as the claim that we have 4% of our “original” forests left (we have 0% of our original population left, but that doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone).

  5. I’m glad you finally found this. It’s a bit shocking to realize just how much we are intentionally manipulated into joining the consumption cycle, isn’t it?
    I don’t mind the claims that she exaggerates the amount of damage we cause, as long as critics realize that conservatives often overreact in the other direction, i.e. ignoring the side effects altogether. Out of sight out of mind, right?
    The fact is we need a middle road.

    Economically speaking, companies that do not pay for their pollution are essentially stealing money from a diffuse group of impacted people that is just too broad and disorganized to fight back.

    The invisible hand does not allocate optimally until externalities like pollution are factored in. Corporate lobbying to avoid liability for pollution is just as much a market distortion as regulation!
    It may be easier to ignore sins of omission that ones of comission, but that does not mean the former are any better.

  6. their website has some other good videos as well. I’ve shown this to high school students to spur debate and help them look at the big picture and to help see themselves as their role as consumers.

  7. You might also be interested to see the response to the video here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....re=related). To be sure, many of the “facts” and opinions given are distorted or silly, but many of the critiques of consumerism, materialism, corporatism are dead on.

  8. @Tony – That’s certainly your choice, although your comment reminded me of this post. I already try to tread carefully, but I’m not going to spend time treading that carefully.

    @Annie G – It’s mostly in good fun from the friends and really I like being a bit different as well, but it does say something about our culture about what is “cool”.

    @Ken – And then those people can proceed to extrapolate about your career, income status, etc… It’s funny.

    @Andy – Yeah, I found many of the arguments a stretch. So much that I thought things like that hurt the message of the film.

  9. I’d be telling Tony not to let the door hit him on the way out as I’m guessing you are thinking too. I thought you went out of your way to distance yourself from the “political” component of the film.
    Here’s a quote from the wikipedia page
    “The American Family Association says that the video is anti-consumer, and even anti-American because the video implies that Americans are greedy, selfish, cruel to the third world, and ‘use more than our share.’”
    Now that description of Americans seems incredibly accurate! Pretty much everybody in the world (except some Americans) would agree!

  10. Andy,
    I don’t think you understand what it means about 4% of our original forest left. It means that forests now inhabit 1/25 as much space as they used to.
    The equivalent people analogy would be saying that people can now live in 1/25 as much part of the U.S. as they used to. Thus something comes along and people can now only live in Ohio lets say.
    It has nothing to do with individual trees being alive and dead as you seem to have thought.
    It’s up for debate whether or not it’s ok that our country has gone from lots of forests to practically none. It’s not up for debate that it’s happened… that’s a fact.

  11. @Andy – really? the movie is a jumping off point for a conversation. if he had used rush limbaugh or al gore would either of those be a reason (depending on your leaning) to stop reading? i worry less about what starts the conversation and more about where it goes.

    General Comment…
    Consumerism drives more of the US economy than any other country’s economy in the history of our planet… and it drives more of the US economy today than it has at any other time in the history of our country. Its out of balance and we cant sustain it. Simple as that.

  12. I watched this video a while ago and I enjoyed it. I think the woman explained the story of stuff very clearly and enjoyably. Never thought there were any political stuff in it. Well, is it Democratic or Republican? I don’t get it. After watching it, it only taught me on responsible and environmentally-friendly spending. I think the concept is very American (the real frugal and responsible American who died 30 years ago)

  13. The attitude of some religious right-wingers is that God gave us this planet to use up. And they are not worried about coming to the end. Indeed the end of life as we know it is their cherished goal. They long for Armageddon and the return of a vengeful Christ who will finally obliterate the wicked so that everything can be scraped clean and started over, presumably the way God intended in the first place. ( Although what is to prevent him or humanity from screwing up all over again? ) Anyway, any rational argument with such thinking is completely in vain. We have to try to save the planet for these people too and in spite of them.

  14. @Donald — Use up the planet? How can you think that people could ever believe such a thing. You think you’re bigger than what you are.

    You have lost another fan of this blog. I’m really surprised that you used this vdeo as an entry today. The whole thing from beginning to end is 100% lies and propaganda. I don’t care if people make things like this, but I have to boycott anyone who uses it because it was targeted towards our children in our public schools.

    Thank you.

  15. @Jonathan Thanks for the link. I may have overreacted a bit but this video really bothers me. To your defense you were referencing a specific part of the video that is relevant to your site. It is interesting however that most of the comments are related to other parts of the video (again, that’s not within your control).

    I can’t stand when something extremely bias like this film tries to clam that not only is balanced but that it is fact. This video in particular was designed for children and presents itself as a factual documentary. There is a huge difference between adults debating a topic and showing a video to elementary students (which is the audience this video was designed for) that says buying an MP3 player is going to kill a village of people in a different part of the world.

    @Brandon – This video is extremely liberal (or more accurately progressive). It was funded by the Tides Foundation.

    The fact that you didn’t recognize the bios is what hits me at the core. Not because of you but because it was presented as fact when in actually there is a boatload of opinion in there and no presentation of the opposite view point.

  16. Tony-
    What parts of the video are not factual? The facts are pretty clear. The part of the video that is up for debate is the conclusions drawn.

    Fact- When you buy something super cheap at Walmart there is a very high chance it was made in a country with less stringent laws, possibly by children, and almost certainly by somebody living in or close to poverty. It was probably made intentionally cheap and it probably will be in a landfill very soon.

    Debatable conclusion- That is a bad thing.

    As a teacher of Elementary School children I hardly see what damage showing this video to them will cause. They might ask questions of their parents, they might choose to buy things made in America, they might question the value in large corporations. What’s the problem? And again as an elementary school teacher it’s also far more likely that they’ll just not understand it or forget about it…or maybe they’ll be texting each other during the video!

    Yeah, the video is liberal. Duh. That’s why I’m liberal. Liberal people don’t think trashing our planet is cool. You got a problem with that? You got a problem with teaching kids trashing our planet isn’t cool? Send your kid to school in an Exxon hat and tell them not to only listen when the teacher tells them ways to make a profit.

  17. I wanted to talk about perceived obsolescence, and quoted my initial source. Yet it all devolves into this. Anger, generalities, and stereotypes of both political extremes.

    Is anyone really going to change their worldview on politics from reading this post? I seriously doubt it.

    Could someone better notice the influence of consumerism, fashion, and perceived obsolescence and the impact on their personal budget and lives? I thought it might.

  18. Jonathan – I wonder if it devolved into a political discussion because the obsolesence topics takes some time to come up in the video. I confess that I was a bit confused when I first starting watching the video, because it seemed more of a case for environmentalism than a case for wise consumer habits.

    The saying “eat the meat, spit out the bones” is applicable here, but I do sympathize with those who object to the video because it targets children. As adults we have the capacity to do that, but children are less equipped for that level filtering.

  19. @Dave did you check the wiki page or even actually look at her sources?

    “What parts of the video are not factual? The facts are pretty clear.”

    Many parts of the video can be shown to be at the very least distortions of the truth just by reading the annotated script.

    “I don’t think you understand what it means about 4% of our original forest left. It means that forests now inhabit 1/25 as much space as they used to.”

    That is what most people would think if you asked them what that statement meant. BUT, that is not what the video is saying. That’s exactly why Andy made his point. The annotated script quotes: “Ninety five to ninety eight percent of forests in the continental United States have been logged at least once since settlement by Europeans.” It completely ignores reforestation and is actually talking about the original trees in the same way that Andy talks about original population.

    I think that the video has a lot of good points and truth, but hinders its message by using deception and inaccuracy to make the situation more dire than it is. Pollution, deforestation, and excess consumption are all problems. They just aren’t quite as bad as Annie Leonard says they are.

    I think that showing the video to kids isn’t wrong, but not being informed about it and not informing them when you show it is.

  20. As a natural resources professional I once went on a canoe trip with a much more experienced professional. When we came upon one tree out of hundreds of thousands in the forest that was in a very difficult spot to reach, he was so excited about the fact that it was old growth. Nearly 500 years old. The other trees around us were no more than 80 years old. This particular one had been spared due to its difficult location along the water.

    The tree stands that are all less than 100 years old are very weak and susceptible. Add to that fire suppression and you have a) a very dangerous situation in that the whole place could go up in smoke very quickly and b) the trees are all susceptible to things like beetles who come in and quickly take out much of the forest. What needs to happen is a regrowth after the beetle blights and at least controlled burning to get the forests back into a healthy state.

    Forests are a very complex subject and even the professionals have their disagreements about how to manage them. A film like this can’t possibly go into all the details for a person to make an informed decision and that is why it is more like propaganda. Even though I am on the democratic/environmental side I still think people need to know the facts.

  21. Jonathan,
    Good post. Anything that’s gets people thinking, is always good. My wife and I have been on an “anti stuff” campaign for 10 years now and it’s amazing how much money you can save. For example, we drive 12 year old cars and just recently picked up a very nice (free) leather couch because our co-worker was upset with a small rip. So what do we do with all the money we save, well uh, we consume. We consume very nice wines and and use United Airlines jet fuel to travel.

  22. I saw this a few years ago, another liberal in need of serious counseling. My favorite is her claim that computer processors are based around planned obsolesce. First of all she is wrong, in most cases you can upgrade your processor within the same model. Second, who wants to, it is just one part of the computer, it is like putting a souped up engine into a Geo Metro. Then you need to bring the transmission, brakes, wheels, shocks, etc up to spec, have fun with that.

  23. A comment not so much about planned or perceived obsolesce but rather about the supply chain.

    I drive an older car. I grew up in a family where my father and uncles loved working on cars. When my car started to show signs of a starter problem, my wife said to take it in to a shop. But I’ve replaced starters, it’s no big deal. Also, I knew that based on the symptoms, it was likely not the starter itself but rather the contacts in the starter solenoid … something I had seen my dad replace on cars back in the ’70s without a thought.

    Finding the contacts, however, proved a huge task. After more than a dozen calls to dealers and local parts shops, I finally tracked down a set. And of those calls, only two of the parts guys knew what I was talking about.

    End of story – $10 out of my pocket rather than $200 – $250 and added ten minutes to a 30-minute job. Plus, I didn’t toss a working starter/solenoid in the trash.

  24. Greling Jackson says:

    I’m not going to get too much into politics. I’m personally a libertarian and a little skeptical of both extremely liberal environmentalists and the “God gave it to us to use it and abuse it”-”global warming is a myth”-”fair use” conservative types. I’m somewhere in the middle, on the fence and still undecided, but I do still cringe when I see photos of baby sea otters dying from oil spills and seagulls with soda rings on their necks.

    I would first just like to say that I remember reading about waste disposal in my oceanography class while in college. It is a big myth that most of our waste is incinerated at a garbage dump and produces carbon emissions. Most of the waste that we make goes straight into the middle of the ocean, untreated and unsorted. It is presumed that the high salinity and natural friction of the waves will decompose it and break it down, but there has been no independent long-term research documenting exactly just what happens to it.

    I’ll also just say that my concern is not so much about what happens to the environment from our consumerist lifestyle but with just how mis-allocated our resources are. It disturbs me when I read that the overwhelming majority of food produced in this country goes to waste and that a very small percent of our packaging materials actually end up recycled. We act like this could go on forever without consequence, but the truth is that nothing last forever, and I fear that one day our wasteful living will someday come back to haunt us.

  25. “End of story – $10 out of my pocket rather than $200 – $250 and added ten minutes to a 30-minute job. Plus, I didn’t toss a working starter/solenoid in the trash.”

    How do we get this into a global scale? Few people know what a solenoid is. Are we all OK with paying more for the starter because the manufacturer is responsible for retrieving all his starters and maximizing re-use? Am I smoking freaky pharmaceuticals? :)

  26. Immigrant Money says:

    I honestly don’t understand the people who did not get the idea of the movie or somehow felt it untrue. Maybe I’m just not at their pay-level or have lived outside US for too long to see it the way they do.

    One can refute the specific numbers quoted in the movie all day long, but the ideas of the movie are undeniable and I don’t see anything wrong with them.

    Regarding targeting kids with this movie?
    How many of the kids will remember the exact numbers and percentages the movie quotes? Probably none. As any frog that slowly boils in the cauldron can tell us – if we don’t give them a jolt they will never even start thinking about getting away from the heat.

    For anyone who wants to see more on the topic – the link below points to the Bioneers 2009 Speech by the creator: http://www.storyofstuff.com/blog/?p=44

  27. It chaps my hide that the computer industry seems overtly planning obsolescence; “Oops, your computer is too slow, buy a faster one., “Oops, your computer wont run our new operating system, buy a new one.”

    This, however, does not define Capitalism which the video does obviously attack. It is this capitalism that provides for everyone to post on this thread using computers they voluntarily purchased (of their choice)

  28. Great post Jonathan. Though the video is biased, as you said, regardless of what you believe it still makes you think about America’s consumerism. While I don’t agree with everything in the video, and some things seemed hopelessly skewed, I still enjoyed watching it, and I’m glad you shared it with us.

  29. When it comes to computers, you DON’T have to buy the “more bloated than the previous version” new Microsoft operating system. You can use Linux on the same hardware instead (what I use) or you can buy a Mac for what’s probably the simplest, most user-friendly computing experience. You still have a choice as to what software to run on your computer. Now, as for the overly bloated, oftentimes worse than the previous version “modern/Web 2.0″ websites/pages that you’re forced to use, well, that’s another story :)

  30. Salaam, I found this blog very interesting indeed. And also, I found all the comments very enlightening regarding our society here in the USA. It is very telling how people think. I am a Muslim person and one thing about Islam is that there is no compulsion to either religion or to anything really. However, Allah/God does ask us not to be “wasters.” In otherwards, to not waste. I so love to see people’s ideas..how they think. We should all in the end respect one another and our planet. It’s a shame what has happened to our planet and to our respect of one another. Life is a test for all. Thank you for your leading to the video..it was very interesting as well as your ideas and everyone’s..ani

  31. Of course there are dozens of particulars to argue with in “The Story of Stuff” and it’s unquestionably propaganda.

    But it’s well worth watching and sharing with those who are too deeply immersed in the culture of consumerism to be familiar with the core ideas presented.

    Those who reject this little screed entirely and threaten to stop reading Jonathan’s blog because he brought it to their attention are in firm denial and are total idiots.

    Those who buy it lock, stock and barrel are also overlooking the fact that it glosses too easily over many arguable points.

    Overall, “The Story of Stuff” is more likely to contribute to a world worth living in than to lead us away from one.

  32. Stephanie says:

    If you liked this, watch “ZEITGEIST MOVING FORWARD” and understand the basics of a Resource Based Economy

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