Firstly, what do we understand by, “Planned Obsolescence”, and “Consumerism”, as there are differences in definitions and interpretations.
In simple words, planned obsolescence also known as built in obsolescence, is engineering products so that they fail to perform satisfactorily after a given amount of usage or time prompting consumers to replace them with the latest one, as in the case of laptops, TV.s or cell phones to name a few. With critics implying that the products are being made redundant deliberately much earlier and could have had a far longer useful life.
Another aspect is that of perceived obsolescence where the products are still functioning perfectly usefully but are perceived by the consumer as being out of style as newer fashions and designs emerge to make the current one not look that good anymore aesthetically, as with clothing and fashion accessories.
Consumerism on the other hand is a tendency for an ever increasing consumption of goods and services which is seen as economically and socially desirable for a better quality of living leading to a consumption oriented society.
Now are the two ideas independent of each other or are they linked and feed of each other. A bit of both and some more i would say, akin to the idea of, “Did the chicken come first or the egg.”
Lets take a look at some examples and see how they fuel or feed of each other:
Gillette first introduced a two blade razor in 1971 and every few years have upgraded thru the Mach-3, Quattro with 4 blades and then the sensor and finally now evolving versions of Fusion with 5 and even an added 6th blade on the flip side for edging sideburns. Is it the end of the road or will we see more blades thinner and sharper added on, barring production constraints probably not.
In improving product quality thru innovation is Gillette furthering planned obsolescence and fueling consumerism. according to Philip Kotler a renowned marketing professor and author: “Much so called planned obsolescence is the working of the competitive and technological forces in a free society, that lead to ever improving goods and services”. Some may however not entirely agree with the learned professor’s viewpoint.
More recently Apple has been accused of the practice and a petition signed by over 300,000 petitioners urges the tech giant to extend the lifespan of their phones. The concern raised by the launch of the iphone 7 which follows a new release every year since the initial version in 2007. Product cycles are becoming shorter being sabotaged by software upgrades slowing down current models and pushing consumers to go for the new look faster and improved devices.
Professor Kotlers viewpoint is true to a certain extent as goods and services need to be churned out, purchased and consumed and the factors of production to be utilized at near capacity, with sustained employment and incomes. Food does need to be put on the table and households need members to stay employed in factories and offices. Corporations have little choice than to bring out the latest models of cars, computers and mobile phones with added features that might add little value to the users in terms of money spent.
However a strategy of bringing out new versions too frequently can backfire with consumer resistance setting in as little added value is perceived, as seen from time to time with the failure of products in the computer software, television and gaming industry.
With no real functional improvements showing up in new models lately customers are beginning to feel they are being almost forced to upgrade to devices that offer little improvement over the current version. With little regulation of the tech industry responsibility falls on governments to step in and at least ensure that there are some checks and balances in place even if it means the corporations continue self regulation by far and large.
In conclusion, consumerism is needed to fuel consumption thus leading organizations to achieve that objective through building in obsolescence in their products via engineering and styling changes that encourage potential customers to simply go out and buy what they see advertised and marketed so glamorously around them.