Planned obsolescence is an often-used tactic in the electronics industry to push sales. Companies design their products to either malfunction prematurely or become difficult to maintain and use. Engineers in this industry should avoid implementing such tactics as it harms the environment and exploits the public, which directly violates the engineering code of ethics. The violation of the engineering code of ethics through the use of planned obsolescence leads to frustrated consumers, tarnished reputations, and environmental damage.
Every year there comes a time when the new line of smartphones is released. Advertisements line the streets and play repeatedly on the air, promising a better and faster smartphone. Around this time, one may notice his or her phone becoming increasingly slower, its battery life waning as it starts losing functionality. Among these annoyances, many users suspect that smartphone companies design their products to purposefully last only a short amount of time. This deliberate shortening of a product’s lifespan is known as planned obsolescence and is prevalent within the modern electronics industry . Companies may push engineers to design products with lifespans that are deliberately short in order to push future sales. After all, planned obsolescence is one of the most effective methods to drive sales of new products. There is no better way to get consumers to buy the new releases on the market than rendering old products obsolete. Electronics, however, are expensive, and having to shell out large amounts of cash each year leads to angry and frustrated consumers. Planned obsolescence breaches the consumers’ trust and tarnishes the reputation of engineers, creating situations that ultimately violate the engineering code of ethics.
Starting in the 1950’s, the practice of making deliberately inferior products became routine. In a late 1950’s Design News piece, editorialist E.S. Safford argued that engineers should not resist the implementation of planned obsolescence in products . Instead, engineers should embrace it, since “planned existence spans of products may well become one of the greatest economic boosts to the American economy” . Engineers should strive to create shoddy products that fall apart quickly, in the interest of economics. In response to the editorial, many consumers wrote angry letters back. They argued that companies are exploiting the consumer when artificially limiting a product’s lifespan to stimulate a synthetic increase in demand. Consumers felt that, in many instances, they were being cheated, overpaying for the product without being informed of its shortened lifespan.
Planned obsolescence has taken many different forms since the 50’s. One such form is programmed obsolescence, where obsolescence is secretly programmed into the product. For example, printer manufacturers employ chips in their ink cartridges to prevent them from being used after a certain date. This occurs regardless of the ink level in the cartridge, existing solely to push sales . Thus, the consumer is tricked into believing their product is outdated or expired.
Planned obsolescence is a violation of an engineer’s code of ethics. Yinong Chen, a computer science professor at Arizona State University, claims that the engineering code of ethics is primarily based upon Kantian ethics. Kantian ethics describes a process in which one acts from moral rules only to stop others from suffering, where “specific duties [are] performed regardless of whether it leads to the most good result” . Kant defines this ethical framework to be where one “always treats humanity, whether in yourself or in other people, as an end in itself and never as a mere means” . Planned obsolescence is used to push consumers to spend money. Generating revenue is the end goal, and consumers are treated as the mere means to achieve that goal without consideration for the consumers’ wellbeing. Thus, it is a violation of the ethical code described above.
In addition, the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) states six fundamental canons that serve as an ethical framework for engineers to follow. Planned obsolescence directly violates the fifth canon: Avoid deceptive acts . According to Karen Dybis of the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy, there is a universal agreement that the needs of the user should be given the utmost consideration . Purposely making inferior products simply does not prioritize the user and only serves to breach the consumer’s trust in a product’s quality.
The long term practice of planned obsolescence also leads to an ethical violation of the sixth fundamental canon of engineering ethics, which states that engineers must conduct themselves to enhance the honor and usefulness of the profession. If products are consistently released with premature lifespans, engineers may tarnish the reputation of the company or their fellow engineers. Indeed, many engineers also responded to Safford’s article with outrage, declaring that planned obsolescence gave engineering a bad name . Planned obsolescence is unethical as it gives the engineer an appearance of doing a substandard job.
In addition, planned obsolescence has negative impacts beyond the scope of the engineer and the consumer. Another form of planned obsolescence, “pseudo-functional obsolescence,” is when a new feature is introduced to seem innovative, but in reality, is not. Instead of directly interfering with the product, pseudo-functional obsolescence indirectly outmodes a product . Electronics chargers are a prime example of pseudo-functional obsolescence. While power adapters often are the same for a series of products, the shape is often changed over time to indirectly render the product obsolete. Manufacturers will stop producing older charger shapes, and stocks will eventually run out. Therefore, if either the charger or the product itself dies, there is no use for the other . Companies may also make it challenging for users to use or maintain older products. For example, new software may not be compatible with old hardware or new software may be designed to run slowly on old hardware. If a malfunction occurs, but a simple hardware fix may solve the issue, companies can push new purchases by making it difficult or impossible for the consumer to implement a quick fix. Regardless of the way planned obsolescence is implemented, the consumer is pushed to purchase a new product despite the old product being perfectly functional. The result is that the product is then discarded prematurely.
As such, planned obsolescence generates an increasingly large amount of electronic waste. According to Syed Faraz Ahmed, planned obsolescence increased the proportions of all units sold to replace defective appliances from 3.5 percent in 2004 to 8.3 percent in 2012 . Creating short-term, disposable products creates a never-ending flow of old products that are shipped away or thrown into landfills. In the electronics and tech industry, pieces of hardware often contain toxic and dangerous chemical substances like lead, cadmium, and various carcinogenics. While out of sight and out of mind for many, this type of waste tends to end up in countries with virtually no regulations on waste recycling or management and ends up in the hands of workers or children without proper safety equipment . For example, in Ghana, children handle and pry apart gadgets with their bare hands to extract the metals within. There, materials are also treated in bonfires, releasing dust and harmful substances into the environment, creating pollution and causing illnesses in the nearby population .
The first fundamental canon of the NSPE states that engineers should “hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public” . The NSPE also states that engineers should strive towards sustainability, protecting the environment for future generations . Waste from old electronics can end up in the hands of vulnerable individuals, threatening the health and safety of both themselves and their communities. Furthermore, this waste poses a threat to future generations. Currently the United States only recycles 29% of electronic waste, meaning that the rest simply ends up in landfills . The practice of planned obsolescence directly contributes to an increase in the rate of production and retirement of electronics and is thus not a sustainable behavior. Intentionally polluting the environment and the welfare of individuals handling descarded electronics is a direct violation of the engineer’s code of ethics.
Engineering professionals live by an ethical framework, guiding their daily decisions and activities. Companies may push engineers to implement planned obsolescence within products, despite the engineering code of ethics. At the end of the day, however, it is up to the engineer to decide whether or not to execute these demands. The engineer’s role in product design goes beyond just informing consumers. It is known that planned obsolescence is damaging to the consumer, the general public, and the environment, all of which conflict with the code of engineering ethics. Preserving ethics is of the upmost importance, as those standards have real-world impacts. Consumers are not the only party responsible for pressuring companies to stop the practice of planned obsolescence. The engineers who design the products should persuade their employers to avoid the practice of planned obsolescence, knowing not just the consequences but also the ethical violations. Instead of directing attention towards short-term profits, engineers should aim for long-term sustainability and positive consumer relationships, pushing the limits of engineering and striving towards ambitious engineering goals.
By Sanders Li, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California
 K. Dybis, “The Ethics of Planned Obsolescence, Center for Digital Ethics and Policy. [Online]. Available: http://www.digitalethics.org/essays/ethics-planned-obsolescence
 S. Beder, “Is planned obsolescene socially responsible?”, The New Engineer, 1998. [Online]. Available: https://www.uow.edu.au/~sharonb/columns/engcol8.html
 K. Wirth, “French Environmental Group Files Planned Obsolescence Lawsuit Against Brother, Canon, Epson, HP”, Wirth Consulting, 2017. [Online]. Available: https://wirthconsulting.org/2017/09/20/french-environmental-group-files-planned-obsolescence-lawsuit-against-brother-canon-epson-hp/
 Y. Chen, “Ethics Theories and Engineering Ethics”, Arizona State University, 2015. [Online]. Available: http://neptune.fulton.ad.asu.edu/VIPLE/Lectures/L20Ethics.pdf
 “Code of Ethics”, National Society of Professional Engineers. [Online]. Available: https://www.nspe.org/resources/ethics/code-ethics
 A. D. Mastro, “Planned Obsolescence: The Good and The Bad, Property and Environment Research Center, 2012. [Online]. Available: https://www.perc.org/blog/planned-obsolescence-good-and-bad
 S. F. Ahmed, “The Global Cost of Electronic Waste”, The Atlantic, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/09/the-global-cost-of-electronic-waste/502019/
 “Planned Obsolescence: The Serious Problem of Electronic Waste”, Sustainability for All. [Online]. Available: http://www.activesustainability.com/environment/planned-obsolescence-the-serious-problem-of-electronic-waste/