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How many TVs, cell phones, or computers have you had over the course of your life? With the emergence of new technologies and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, everyone uses electronic devices, which eventually break, become obsolete, or fall out of popularity. This phenomenon is called planned obsolescence.

Upgrading to a new product every certain amount of time implies an increase in the consumption of limited resources, as well as an increase in our generation of waste. In this context, the idea of circular economy principle, based on the reduction of our consumption of raw materials and reusing waste, can offer a more sustainable and eco-friendly way of consumption.

What is planned obsolescence?

Planned obsolescence is when a product is manufactured by planning its useful life; in other words, purposefully establishing a time in which it will artificially stop working correctly, needing to be repaired or replaced.

Taking as an example the famous anecdote of the light bulb that has been shining for more than 100 years at the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Station in California, perceived obsolescence is based on the idea that if all the light bulbs that we buy last over 100 years, manufacturers would have no buyers, and the industry would go bankrupt without any light bulbs available to meet new needs. Therefore, selling light bulbs with a planned useful life means that more bulbs have to be purchased while maintaining a viable supply-demand trade-off. 

This is the idea that real estate broker Bernard London suggested in 1932 in the report, “Ending the depression through planned obsolescence,” with the aim of preventing an economic crisis like the 1929 crash.

The term planned obsolescence is closely related to the life cycle of a product (development - introduction/launch - growth - maturity - decline). For different reasons, there comes a time when customers stop consuming an item because a new product replaces it.

Types of planned obsolescence

There are different types of planned obsolescence:

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  1. Planned obsolescence: The useful life of a product is planned so that it stops working after a certain number of uses.
  2. Indirect obsolescence: The damaged product doesn't have spare parts to repair it, so it's unusable. 
  3. Functional obsolescence: This occurs when a component fails, and the whole device stops working. 
  4. Incompatability obsolescence: In IT services, updates stop being released for the proper functioning of the product, and it becomes obsolete. 
  5. Psychological obsolescence: New models of the same category appear, so the product becomes "old-fashioned."
  6. Aesthetic obsolescence: When a product in good condition is replaced by another more modern one or with a more attractive design.
  7. Obsolescence by expiration: The life of a product is artificially reduced because of its preferrable expiration or consumption date although it can still be used or consumed.
  8. Environmental obsolescence: When abandoning a product in perfect condition for another that's promoted as more efficient or more eco-friendly is justified.

Examples of planned obsolescence

As we have seen, there are different types of planned obsolescence. Let's look at some examples below:

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Lack of spare parts

Some electronic products are designed in a way that a part can't be removed and repaired, so if it brakes the device is unusable.
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Technology is advancing faster and faster, so there comes a point in which there are no longer updates for our device. This means that we can't use some apps or programs that require an update, and the old ones become slow and unstable.

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Irreplaceable batteries

The majority of electronic equipment, such as cell phones or laptops, use batteries that are subject to wear-and-tear and sometimes can't be replaced. This means that the part can't be directly removed by the user, and its replacement by a technical service comes at a cost that often leads to considering the purchase of a new device.

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A new model appears on the market with an improved and more striking design, making the previous one obsolete.

How can we avoid the consequences of planned obsolescence?

Planned obsolescence allows us to maintain a sustainable industry, and therefore, ensure the availability of supply in the face of demand, but one of the main disadvantages is its environmental impact. Manufacturing and consuming a greater number of products doesn't just involve increasing water, energy, and natural resource consumption to get raw materials, but it also brings with it generating more waste.

Promoting a more sustainable and circular economic model, with ethical and responsible products and services, is an effective way of avoiding the consequences of planned obsolescence:

Repsol and planned obsolescence

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At Repsol, we have a Strategic Plan that will lead to an acceleration in the energy transition to successfully comply with our goal of net zero emissions by 2050. To achieve it, we are relying on four main pillars: energy efficiency, circular economy, renewable hydrogen, and capture and use of CO2.

We currently have more than 270 circular economy projects underway and more than 220 strategic partners, including organizations and institutions. A good example is our waste to chemicals Ecoplanta project in Tarragona, Catalonia. We are undertaking this project alongside the companies Enerkem, leader in clean technology, and Agbar, specialist in water and waste management.