"Planned Obsolescence"—the made-in-America practice of producing goods that are not meant to last, or be repaired—has left the U.S. with the world's largest waste stream. Why do we keep feeding this destructive cycle by buying more and more flimsy stuff? Could we join the countries that are forging smarter paths?
Written by JULIA SCHEERES
“We want to construct some kind of a machine that will last forever,” Henry Ford wrote in his 1922 memoir, “My Life and Work.” “It does not please us to have a buyer’s car wear out or become obsolete. We want the man who buys one of our products never to have to buy another.”
An eighth-grade dropout and a farmer’s son, Ford aspired to make reliable cars for the masses. Each Model T that rolled off his Michigan assembly lines included a toolkit that allowed buyers to fix their own vehicles. Ever the populist, Ford even decreased the Model T’s sticker price over 15 years, dropping it from $780 in 1909 to $290 by 1924—or from $28,000 in today’s dollars to a mere $5,000—to make it more affordable for the average American.
Ford’s public-spirited innovations didn’t stop there. “We never make an improvement that renders any previous model obsolete,” he wrote. “The parts of a specific model are not only interchangeable with all other cars of that model, but they are interchangeable with similar parts on all the cars that we have turned out.”
Meanwhile, Ford’s competitor at General Motors, CEO Alfred P. Sloan, went in the opposite direction. Sloan, who hailed from privilege, graduated from MIT, and was more interested in profit than social change, emphasized variety and frequent redesigns. He created the 1923 Chevrolet in stylistic contrast to the Model T—sleeker, less boxy, and with a lower roof. It was a winning gambit: Ford’s “Tin Lizzie” suddenly seemed stodgy—something grandpa drove—and status-seeking consumers flocked to GM’s showrooms.
In the following decades, the Big Three carmakers in the U.S.—GM, Ford, and Chrysler—increasingly competed on the novelty front, adding or reducing lights or chrome trim, swapping out color palettes, elongating tail fins. The purpose of these superficial modifications was to make prior models look outdated, and thus move more inventory. And the public fell for it. By 1960, Americans were trading in their “old” cars every two years. Americans’ lust for shiny new things had now become one of our defining national traits.
For my part, I’ve never really felt drawn to novelty. Though I live in a neighborhood of his-and-her Teslas and $1,500 electric bicycles, I’ve been perfectly content with my 20-year-old Jeep and 15-year-old road bike. Until recently, that is. Until the stockpot incident.
Let me explain. The humble workhorse of my family kitchen is a four-quart stockpot made of basic stainless steel. It’s the cooking vessel I reach for more than any other. But it’s hideous. The bottom is burned a crusty black, the outside marred with oil stains. The handles rattle, and the original lid vanished long ago. The pot was already beat up when I inherited it from a roommate in Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago. So, when I recently scorched the interior while making stovetop popcorn, I figured it was time for a replacement.
I turned to the internet, and Google promptly gave me 1.3 million possibilities. I was suspicious of Walmart’s $10 stainless steel pot, but aghast at a $545 Italian vessel forged from “hand-hammered” copper and crowned with a pumpkin-shaped finial on its lid. The copper pot was advertised as “ideal for simmering and boiling pasta, stocks, soups and minestrone”—but, duh, so was Walmart’s. It’s what pots do. Unlike the Walmart pot, however, the Italian beauty promised buyers an alluring bonus: It was meant to be “proudly displayed.”
I certainly was never “proud” of my ugly old pot, but now I felt a strange, lacerating shame. My mind flashed over the dinner parties I’d hosted over the decades, scrambling to calculate how many people might have noticed my cookware—and perhaps made various derogatory assumptions about me. Had a lowly stockpot silently undermined my “personal brand” all these years?
“Our status-driven consumption has led us to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t care about.”
The experience got me thinking: Who or what should determine the lifespan of our possessions? Should we replace our belongings when they’re no longer functional, or when they no longer appeal to us? And what would it take to shift our society back to one that prizes durability over rabid consumption?
Tim Jackson, a British economist who directs the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, says my cookware-induced angst is symptomatic of a larger problem. Modern capitalism, Jackson argues, is literally founded on feelings of shame and dissatisfaction. “Our status-driven consumption has led us to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t care about.”
For most of human history, people generally lived in scarcity and squalor—conditions that elevated a basic soup pot to a cherished possession. But most of us now live in an era of enormous surplus. Every day we’re bombarded by thousands of advertisements—plastered on product labels, pulsing on internet pages, interrupting our entertainment streams—priming us to always want more things, faster things, shinier things. We’ve turned into a horde of neophiliacs.
In the United States, our incessant acquisitions have turned us into the world’s most wasteful country. Today, each American generates an average of 5 pounds of trash a day. That’s three times the global average. We are the only developed nation that creates more waste than we recycle, generating such an immense volume of garbage that we must ship our scrap plastic to overseas processors to handle the excess. In 2022, those shipments totaled 950 million pounds.
Moreover, the industrial activities related to our insatiable consumption—resource extraction, production, energy use, transportation, and disposal, to name just a few—account for more than 40 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions. Every time we buy something new, that dopamine rush we feel momentarily blinds us to the fact that we’re living on an increasingly doomed planet, even as our buying habits hasten its, and our own, decline.
Whether that’s something we can change is unclear. As Americans, we’re programmed since birth to buy, buy, buy. And in times of national crisis or economic downturn, shopping is elevated to patriotic duty: We’re urged, by our own political leaders, to fish out our credit cards to help the country recover.
Of course, the United States isn’t alone in pushing this mindset. International bodies such as the World Bank—which lends money to developing countries—also measure a nation’s well-being by its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), meaning the number of goods and services a country produces. According to this standard, GDP must continually grow to avoid recessions, declining living standards, and social unrest.
Meanwhile, a small group of concerned observers has been warning us, for decades now, that assessing a country’s health solely by its GDP is an outmoded—and ecologically dangerous—model. In 1973, economist E.F. Schumacher famously published “Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered,” which argued for small-scale, sustainable development over unfettered consumption. Schumacher’s philosophies seeded a new crop of environmental economists, such as Jackson, who are urging countries to adopt zero or even negative growth. [See “Could Small Still Be Beautiful?“, Craftsmanship‘s revisit of Schumacher’s ideas; and our sidebar: An Abbreviated Timeline of a Problematic Standard: the GDP.]
But consumption has become central to the American way of life itself. The questions of how we worked our way into this position—and what we need to do to get out of it—are increasingly relevant as scientists warn that we’re rapidly reaching a tipping point into runaway climate chaos.
To fully understand our predicament, let’s unpack the very concept of obsolescence—the biggest driver of our purchasing decisions. In “The Waste Makers,” a landmark 1960 exposé on America’s throwaway culture, journalist and social critic Vance Packard parsed the obsolescence problem into three categories:
“Not only did we invent disposable products, ranging from diapers to cameras to contact lenses, but we invented the very concept of disposability itself.”
The first category, what Packard calls “obsolescence of function,” happens when a product becomes outmoded by one that performs better. Technology is the most obvious example: In just a few decades, cell phones have almost turned landline phones into museum pieces. Functional obsolescence isn’t always a bad thing. Few people will lament the passing of the telegraph, black-and-white TV sets, or horsehair mattresses.
Packard’s second category is “obsolescence of desirability,” a disease that strikes when a product has lost its appeal because it’s no longer trendy or new. I might call it the soup pot syndrome. Packard’s third and last category, “obsolescence of quality,” occurs when a product breaks sooner than it could—cheap plastic toys and fast fashion being prime examples.
Over time, as manufacturers have seen how premature product breakdown can trigger desire around all three categories of obsolescence—and how lucrative consumer anxieties in each category can be—many have intentionally designed their goods to have a limited lifespan (more on this to come).
In “Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America,” published in 2007, Giles Slade calls product obsolescence a “uniquely American invention.” He further argues that “Not only did we invent disposable products, ranging from diapers to cameras to contact lenses, but we invented the very concept of disposability itself, as a necessary precursor to our rejection of tradition and our promotion of progress and change.”
Among the first throwaway products to gain popularity in the United States, in the mid-1800s, were paper collars, cuffs, and shirtfronts—also known as “dickeys.” These were marketed to both sexes in a broad array of styles and valued for their low cost and convenience: Whenever the paper shirt pieces got dirty, reports Brenton Grom, on the history site Disposable America, the user simply tossed them into the hearth.
In the era before modern washing machines, disposable shirt pieces were particularly appealing to the single young men who left farming families to work in towns and cities as clerks. Putting on a spotless white collar was a mark of distinction—the sign of “a class of people who did not sully themselves with manual toil,” Grom writes. The practice gave rise to the term “white-collar worker.” In paperwear’s heyday, in the 1860s, 30 American factories churned out 1.5 million disposable shirt parts every day.
Other throwaway products invented in the U.S. and gifted to the world include an arguable mix of the good and the bad, such as the following: toilet paper (1857), bottle caps (1892), sanitary napkins (1895), razors with replaceable blades (1906), plastic (1907), latex condoms (1920), Band-Aids (1921), and single-use diapers (1948). Plastic, of course, is the most ubiquitous of these inventions, and its proliferation was aided in no small part by a speech delivered in the 1950s to a gathering of industry insiders. “The future of plastics is in the trash can,” Lloyd Stouffer, the editor of Modern Packaging Magazine, told the crowd. Stouffer wanted the industry “to stop thinking about ‘reuse’ packages and concentrate on single-use.” If the plastics industry wants to drive sales, he argued, “it must teach customers how to waste.”
We’ve clearly learned that lesson. Today, American corporations generate enormous profits by pumping out all kinds of single-use products. Look, for example, at disposable cups. In 2021, the market for throw-away cups was valued at $15 billion worldwide; by 2028, it’s forecast to reach $22 billion.
There have of course always been outliers—companies such as Patagonia or JanSport that stake their reputations on quality by offering lifetime guarantees. But in most retail sectors, it’s difficult to convince customers that they will save money in the long run by buying something built to last—even when, if a buyer does the math, those savings can be enormous. Americans love to believe they’re getting a “deal,” so the flimsy but less expensive version of any given item wins out almost every time.
Relentless buying has long buoyed the U.S. economy—except for the times when it hasn’t. One factor in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that’s often overlooked, or forgotten, was the country’s overproduction of goods: When supply outpaced demand, prices dropped, investment froze, panic spread, and 12.8 million Americans lost their jobs.
In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, a frustrated 59-year-old Manhattan real-estate agent named Bernard London self-published a manifesto on how to reboot the country. He titled it “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence”—the first recorded usage of the term. “The essential and bitter irony of the present depression lies in the fact that millions of persons are deprived of a satisfactory standard of living at a time when the granaries and warehouses of the world are overstuffed with surplus supplies,” London wrote. Because Americans were in a “frightened and hysterical mood,” he argued, they were holding onto possessions that were “obsolete, outworn, and outmoded” much longer than they did before the Crash.
London proposed a radical solution: The federal government should force Americans to throw away their old things and buy new stuff, in order to spark a national buying spree that would restore millions of factory jobs and jumpstart the economy. “Furniture and clothing and other commodities should have a span of life, just as humans have,” he argued. “When used for their allotted time, they should be retired, and replaced by fresh merchandise.”
London proposed that a group of “engineers, economists, and mathematicians” should determine the lifespan of each product—fixing the expiration date of a car at, say, five years, and that of a building at around 25 years. Government agents would then seize expired goods and reimburse the purchaser for the item’s original sales tax value, offering a voucher toward a new purchase.
But what if you felt attached to your house, or to the crystal vase you inherited from your dear grandmother? Tough toodles. Under London’s plan, people who refused to surrender their belongings would be taxed for “continued use of what is legally ‘dead.’”
As London explained, “Today we penalize by taxation persons who spend their money to purchase commodities, which are necessary in order to create business. Would it not be far more desirable to tax instead the man who is hoarding his money and keeping old and useless things?”
“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life…”
Little is known about London aside from the fact that he worked as a builder in Russia before emigrating to New York, where he established a thriving realty business. Some have suggested that he was influenced by Aldous Huxley’s novel, “Brave New World,” which was published the same year as London’s manifesto (1933), and depicts a society of rabid consumerists who are indoctrinated in their sleep by the whispered refrain “We always throw away old clothes. Ending is better than mending.”
There’s no way to gauge the influence of London’s screed. And at a time when many American families faced financial ruin, urging them to buy “fresh merchandise” for the sake of the country seems woefully out of touch. Such profligate spending also ran counter to a popular Depression-era admonition: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
Nonetheless, London’s rallying cry was echoed in a 1936 Printer’s Ink article titled “Outmoded Durability: If Merchandise Does Not Wear Out Faster, Factories Will Be Idle, People Unemployed.” By 1955, London’s core ideas were mainstreamed by American economist and retail analyst Victor Lebow, who wrote, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”
Eventually, even the federal government joined the chorus, pressuring Americans to buy more stuff to correct economic downturns and presenting consumerism as a kind of patriotic mandate. During the recession of 1958, President Eisenhower used the slogan “Buy Now” to boost spending. And more than 60 years later, during the COVID-19 recession, President Biden took a similar tack, mailing out $817 billion in stimulus checks to individuals and families as part of his American Rescue Plan. (When the administration learned that some recipients were saving the money or using it to pay down debts instead of spending it, payments were switched to prepaid debit cards, whose funds are more difficult to deposit. Even a liberal, environmentally minded president chose consumerism over savings as a way to help American families.)
Over time, the idea of “planned obsolescence” acquired new shadings. In 1953, an industrial designer named Brooks Stevens—whose portfolio included Miller Beer’s logo and Oscar Mayer’s “Weinermobile”—published a brochure titled “The great strides of industrial design are yet to come through Planned Obsolescence.” Stevens unabashedly defined the term as “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”
Stevens falsely claimed to have invented the term “planned obsolescence,” and employed it aggressively throughout his career. “Our whole economy is based on planned obsolescence, and everybody who can read without moving his lips should know it by now,” he asserted. “We make good products, we induce people to buy them, and next year we deliberately introduce something that will make those products old-fashioned, out-of-date, obsolete … It isn’t organized waste. It’s a sound contribution to the American economy.”
One of Stevens’ main competitors, Walter D. Teague—widely referred to as the “dean of industrial design”—was offended by Steven’s cavalier attitude. Teague wanted to make objects that aspired to heirloom status. Among his creations are the iconic Kodak Baby Brownie camera, the classic Steinway grand piano, and exquisite etched vessels made for Steuben Glass. “The design sensibilities of the public have been offended by the phony glitter and gingerbread that is being palmed off on them, and they have no desire to spend their money on a lot of nothingness,” he told a reporter. “Legitimate improvements, yes. But this Roman orgy of obsolescence merchandising must come to an end.”
Time has been a harsh judge of the two men’s work. Many of Teague’s designs have indeed become heirlooms, and prized collector’s items; The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art has 31 of his products in its holdings. Contrast that with the number of Brooks Stevens’ pieces that the museum has acquired: zero.
Meanwhile, in corporate boardrooms across the country, the competition between the two mens’ aesthetics went a little differently. “It is our job to make women unhappy with what they have,” B. Earl Puckett, CEO of the nation’s largest department store chain, brazenly told a 1950 gathering of merchandisers. Puckett suggested that womenswear brands introduce new collections once a year to accelerate sales. Clothing brands caught on and within a few years, major fashion designers were introducing new collections each season. (Today, that seasonal model has been upended entirely by fast fashion, which churns out cheap and trendy clothing on a continuous basis.)
Somewhere along the way… companies realized they could shorten buying cycles by intentionally introducing frailty into their product lines.
In the 1950s and ’60s, even home appliance companies hopped onto the planned obsolescence bandwagon. Refrigerator profiles went from rounded to sharp and boxy, for no reason other than change. Electric ranges debuted in soft pastels, including “Bermuda Pink” and “Spring Green.” With each “upgrade,” extra dials and buttons were added to stoves and washing machines, making appliances look like space-age wonders. Many of these additions were actually dummy knobs that did nothing more than fulfill consumer’s assumptions that more was always better.
Somewhere along the way, things took a more insidious turn when companies realized they could shorten buying cycles by intentionally introducing frailty into their product lines. Engineers who once took pride in designing for durability were explicitly ordered to design for failure instead. This practice, known as “death-dating,” was, and still is, difficult to detect.
The first known instance of death-dating can be tracked to 1925, when an international cartel of light-bulb makers colluded to reduce the lifespan of incandescent bulbs—from 2,500 hours to 1,000 hours, simply to increase sales. Members of the “Phoebus Cartel” even fined factories for producing longer-burning bulbs. The conspiracy was only discovered in the 1940s, during an investigation into General Electric’s anti-competitive business practices. Cartel members profited from the scheme for more than 15 years before it was discovered.
By the mid-1950s, consumers began to notice an escalating shoddiness in many of their new purchases. Cars quickly began to rust and rattle, washing machines broke down, television sets burned out, carpets became threadbare, and curtains disintegrated the first time they were washed.
In response to angry customers who demanded refunds or exchanges, many companies simply shortened product warranties. But this wasn’t how America’s business leaders had been taught to think. Some responded to customer complaints by shortening their product warranties. Other companies got into the repair business, creating a system of double-dipping—first selling subpar merchandise, then getting paid to fix it. “By 1960, the nation had twice as many repairmen—or about two million—as it did before World War II,” Packard wrote in “The Waste Makers.”
A few savvy businesses noticed the widespread consumer frustration and played into it, positioning themselves as purveyors of quality to gain customers. In 1967, the Maytag appliance company introduced the “Maytag Repairman” as its spokesperson, calling him “the loneliest man in town” because he spent his days waiting for the phone to ring. Likewise, Volkswagen ran ads featuring its classic Beetle, which was introduced in 1938 and kept the same basic profile for seven decades. In a 1963 ad, the automaker boasted, “(We) never change the VW for the sake of change, only to make it better.”
Unfortunately, promoting durability has never really caught on as a business strategy. Meanwhile, the practice of death-dating products has only grown over time, and has become especially prevalent in the tech industry, which is responsible for sending 50 million tons of e-waste to landfills each year. In 2022, a Washington Post investigation found that many devices—from headphones to electric toothbrushes to e-readers—stopped working within two to four years, after which time their impossible-to-replace lithium batteries no longer held a charge. AirPod batteries are actually glued inside the mechanism, preventing users from replacing them. (Apple does offer a “battery replacement service.” But at $110 for the set, it’s an exorbitant fee. Basic AirPods cost about the same—$130. This typically leads to yet another perfectly good item going into the trash, and another unnecessary purchase.)
Other ways tech companies force consumers to become repeat customers include using software that triggers devices to shut down after a certain number of uses, using rivets or proprietary screws to prevent home repairs, and refusing to publish repair manuals.
In the early 2000s, consumer frustration finally reached a boiling point—and much of it was directed at Apple Inc.
In 2003, after aspiring filmmaker Casey Neistat learned he couldn’t easily or affordably replace his iPod batteries, he took to the streets of New York City to graffiti a warning over posters advertising the music player: “iPod’s unreplaceable battery only lasts 18 months.” (Apple soon lowered the cost of its battery replacement program.) That same year, two students at Cal Poly taught themselves to fix an iBook and then launched iFixit, a website that publishes step-by-step instructions on how to repair everything from appliances to cars to game consoles. By August 2023, consumer activists had introduced right-to-repair legislation in more than 40 states.
“We made this weird flip as a society where thrifting is no longer something we appreciate. But we’re going back to that value with the younger generation…”
Meanwhile, a new generation of companies have hitched their reputations to quality. Examples include Darn Tough socks and Davek umbrellas, which offer lifetime guarantees; and Teracube cell phones, made with replaceable batteries. Convenient directories for long-lasting products can now be found at new shopping sites such as Buy Me Once.
“People used to joke about Depression-era thinking, mocking thrift as a value,” says Michael O’Heaney, executive director of The Story of Stuff Project, an environmental group in Berkeley, California. Thanks to decades of planned obsolescence and death-dating, he says, “we made this weird flip as a society where thrifting is no longer something we appreciate. But we’re going back to that value with the younger generation, which is more conscious of waste and climate.”
These are encouraging trends, but undoing an entire culture of new-is-good/old-is-bad thinking won’t be easy. It will require radical, wide-ranging changes on a policy level, environmental economists and sustainability experts say. And it will require us to break free from the single, rigid measure of economic health that’s guided national policies since 1944: the GDP. Instead of measuring citizens’ consumption, these “degrowthers” argue, governments should measure citizens’ health and happiness.
Several countries are already attempting to do this. Finland, Iceland, Scotland, Wales, New Zealand, and Canada have joined the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, a group formed in 2018 to advise governments on instituting programs that prioritize people and planet over growth. The alliance was the brainchild of two entities: an advisory panel for the Bhutanese government called The Alliance for Sustainability and Prosperity (ASAP), and Colorado-based Natural Capitalism Solutions. By the end of 2022, the Wellbeing alliance had 350 member organizations worldwide. Those organizations have launched dozens of initiatives to date, from granting legal status to rivers in India and New Zealand, and making climate change studies compulsory in Italy, to introducing a living minimum income to address poverty in Spain.
The global pandemic provided us all with a glimpse into what a “well-being economy” might look like—one less driven by the rat race and more by human connection. Freed from grueling commutes, those of us able to work from home have spent more time with people we love, doing things we enjoy, and learning new skills (sourdough enthusiasts, unite!). But now that some pre-pandemic normalcy is returning, we’re at an inflection point: Will we continue to prioritize our relationships and health? Or will our old acquisitive lust again dominate our thoughts and actions?
Keeping that lust at bay—and remembering those pandemic lessons—could be our next collective challenge. And the outcome may ultimately hinge on how successful we are at freighting our belongings with meaning. Each of my most cherished possessions, for example, carries a story: the hand-painted wooden fruit bowl I purchased on a sandy Mexican street from an artisan named Nicolas Cirilo de la Rosa. The ceramic potpourri burner my brother David made me a few months before he died in a car crash at age 20. The classic Jeep that drove me to my wedding, to the birth of my two kids, and on countless family camping trips.
And of course the beat-up but still-functional stockpot that fed me in graduate school, warmed bottles of milk for my babies, and today cooks everyone’s favorite vegetarian chili. It may not qualify as an item that can be “proudly displayed.” But it offers something far more profound—an alluring bonus that doesn’t carry a price tag: It’s filled with history. With memories. With love.
I’m keeping it.