Expecting Obsolescence

Recently, the cordless Waterpik water flosser that my husband uses every evening quit holding its charge. The device is little more than a year old and otherwise works fine, so my first thought was that we should just replace the rechargeable battery. However, the battery can’t be replaced, because the whole unit is sealed. In addition, I couldn’t find a replacement battery for sale on the Waterpik website, though they do sell some other replacement parts.

My husband isn’t the only consumer whose Waterpik battery failed after a year of use. A reader of the Consumerist blog had a similar experience, and noted many comparable complaints on the product’s Amazon page. My conclusion is that my husband’s Waterpik can’t be fixed and is destined for the trash.

This is wrong. A product made from oil-derived plastic and other nonrenewable resources shouldn’t be designed to be thrown away after just a year of use. But that’s how far too many items are made today, and customers aren’t even that surprised by this. For $50, did we really expect a device that would last a lifetime?

We’ve been conditioned by producers to expect goods that don’t last or that just get “old” in short order, because of the strategy of planned obsolescence. The term was coined by the industrial designer Brooks Stevens in the early 1950s. He defined planned obsolescence as “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”

The practice of planned obsolescence was pioneered by the car industry in the 1920s with the introduction of a new variation of a familiar car model each year as a way to boost sales. Today, manufacturers in many industries follow this approach, producing “new” versions of their products, from running shoes to toothpaste to kitchen appliances. The result is that consumers have come to expect obsolescence of most products, and aren’t surprised that something bought a few years ago soon is dated.  

The result is that we as consumers no longer expect goods to last, either functionally or stylistically, and manufacturers know that. We’ve been trained to expect obsolescence, and we shop accordingly. This is the basis of the modern economic model: produce goods that always leave consumers wanting a little bit more, so that they’ll keep buying and workers will have something to keep producing. It is this approach that has given us global warming, species extinction, gyres of plastic in the oceans, and myriad other environmental problems.

I know what pitfalls to avoid when buying the next Waterpik. Addressing the broader conundrum will be much harder because it entails rethinking so much about how our economy works.