Planned Obsolescence: Unveiling the Curse of Short-lived Consumer Electronics

Delve into the concept of planned obsolescence, where consumer electronics like washing machines and smartphones are designed with a limited lifespan. Explore the negative impacts of this practice, including environmental concerns, waste generation, and the financial burden on consumers. Understand the implications of planned obsolescence on sustainability, product durability, and consumer rights.

When the washing machine agitator started to clunk in an alarming way, I knew the 18-year affair was over. Other families have life-long pets. We have appliances we nurture for decades. The fridge must be two decades old. The microwave oven belongs in a museum but works beautifully. The car is 16 years old. I love it. In an age of planned obsolescence we fight a rearguard action. We refuse to give in.

But the repairman laughed when we rang: “How old? What do you expect?” The cost of fixing the old top loader, even if he could hunt down an agitator, would be equal to a new washing machine. “Get rid of it,” he said. Now I know how a pet-lover feels when told to euthanise Fluffy.

So how hard can it be to buy a new washing machine, one built to last 20 years, one just like my dear, departed – a couple of knobs, a few washing options, a quick cycle time – but more energy and water efficient? Really hard, it turned out, for me at least.

I hate too much choice so I signed up for Choice to decide for me. As luck would have it, they’d just tested more than 60 washing machines; yes 60. It’s enough to make you pine for good old central command Communism. Also, I texted everyone I knew on the top loader/front loader conundrum secretly hoping the majority would opt for top loader. But the majority acted as if I were an environmental vandal even to consider the water-guzzling, energy-sucking option. “Absolutely sold on front loader,” texted one friend who runs a major theatre company but was happy to take time off to discuss my problem. “Welcome to greater sustainability!”

It’s a big decision getting the right washing machine. You can’t be too careful. The newspapers have been full of stories about washing machines spontaneously igniting, and threatening to burn down hearth and home. Also, with four adults at home, sporty ones too, we’re always washing. Also I didn’t want to have to make this decision again in my lifetime.

But longevity is not one of the criteria Choice takes into account. Dirt removal, rinsing efficiency, cycle time…..yes. But expected longevity? No. I’ve heard the stories about modern white goods: a life span of seven years is what today’s consumer can expect, and even then a repairman is on resuscitation duty. Planned obsolescence is a curse that costs the consumer and the environment dearly. It began with throw-away cigarette lighters, escalated to white goods that are built to break down, and reached its apotheosis with mobile phones. Landfills are full of our broken down stuff, with some waste shipped off to China to rise again in the form of plastic bottles or metal grills.

Most of the sturdy old appliances in our home, I realised, were reaching the two-decade mark, and I started to regard them with renewed affection. I was not likely to see their likes again. I started reminiscing about my Mum and Dad’s Hoover twin tub, and their old Kelvinator fridge that lasted into my young adulthood, and like some hoary wild woman, I took to cursing modern times.

Then I moved on. I resigned myself to obsolescence and decided to go along with Choice (seeing I’d paid up for a quarterly subscription). Easy. But I made the fatal mistake of Googling its recommended top machines. You think I’m obsessed? There are online forums devoted to the discussion of washing machine pros and cons. Dozens, maybe hundreds worldwide, share their washing machine sagas. “The timer lies, with washes taking much longer than the estimate. Typically over three hours,” writes one consumer of a well-known brand. Another writes, “Perhaps we got a lemon, but we have had this machine for a couple of years now and I have endless problems with the spin cycle.” Some ask complex questions about the best temperature settings and spin speeds to use (You can select a spin speed?), alerting me to the thicket of choices that lay ahead. I, who once bunged everything in together in cold water, flicked a switch, and returned 40 minutes later to hang the washing on the line, was about to enter a new world. Some asked fellow aficionados for advice: “The wire from my wife’s bra got stuck in the drum, any ideas on how to get it out?”

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I knew it was decision time when an exasperated friend declared at a dinner, “Enough with the washing machine talk!” You’re probably thinking the same thing. So we bought a front loader, an old model German machine on special, on the advice of a washing machine repairman who does nothing but repair washing machines. You should hear his stories.

It takes twice as long as my old machine, and comes with an array of choices that I realise I need never use. What a waste. But it’s water and energy efficient, and the repairman says it will last a really long time. Fingers crossed.

Any good stories to share on goods that lasted and those that didn’t? Please leave a comment.

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Adele Horin

Adele Horin

Adele Marilyn Horin was an Australian journalist. She retired in 2012 as a columnist and journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald. A prolific and polarising writer on social issues, she was described as "the paper's resident feminist.