Thinking Out Loud* – Planned Obsolescence

I can’t remember the exact moment I first heard those two words—Planned Obsolescence—put together. It was a while ago. The Eighties? Probably when something (printer? dishwasher? vacuum?) broke and I learned it was cheaper to throw out the broken thing and replace it with a newer thing because it cost less and was more available than a part to fix the old broken thing.

Planned Obsolescence. What is it? According to numerous sources on the internet, it is “a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing, achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of nondurable materials.”

I had no idea it was an actual policy. It seems incredibly stupid and wasteful, doesn’t it?

Where did it start?

I have a theory.

Thor Power Tool v. Commissioner

A few years ago, I wrote a four-part article for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog Cynsations about books going out of print. While researching it, I learned that there was a Supreme Court decision in 1979 (Thor Power Tool v. Commissioner) which ruled that all inventory is taxable at the same rate. Thor argued that old inventory should be deducted for tax loss because it was deducted for accounting purposes. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Commissioner (the Internal Revenue Service) basically saying that back stock could not be taxed at a lesser rate unless it was proved defective.

This decision had a devastating effect on the book publishing industry. Essentially it made it more expensive for publishers to carry poor selling inventory from year to year. As a result, publishers cut print runs to minimize inventory and decided more quickly to dispose of books before the end of the fiscal year. Books had to earn their keep. Publishers had to work harder to justify the bottom line of books staying in print. Authors often had to choose between promoting their books in print, writing their next one or trying to do both.

Books aren’t the only industry affected by this decision. Consider vacuum cleaner parts for the vacuum you purchased five years ago. Or the dishwasher? Or the printer you simply replaced because it was more expensive to replace a broken printer head. Consider every time you want to get something repaired and the person behind the counter says, “It would be cheaper to buy it new.”

I’m a small cog in this big wheel of life but it seems to me this 1979 decision should be challenged in the name of climate health, in the name of intellectual health, in the name of good sense. Do we really want to continue to be a disposable society? Do we want to stop making well-made things? Do we want to disenfranchise repair people? Do we want books to go out of print after an average of five years?

The Value of Books

Books provide the narrative of our lives. They document us. They remind us of where we have been. They give us a glimmer of what’s possible. Planned Obsolescence is like manufacturing amnesia. Planned obsolescence is a kind of censorship. If as George Santayana says, “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” then I wonder if this policy condemns us to living in a land with burgeoning landfills and intellectual memory loss.


*As the youngest in my bio-family, I was a late talker. The walking talking tribe of my older sisters and my parents were paragraphs and sentences ahead of me when I arrived. I was hesitant to speak up, to think out loud. I thought I had to be perfect. Hah!  This series, for however long it lasts, is about me speaking up and thinking out loud.