The Light Bulb Conspiracy: The Story of Planned Obsolescence

By Bhavani Prakash

Our review of the movie “The Light Bulb Conspiracy” coincides with the resignation of Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple Computers.

Steve Jobs certainly deserves a lot of credit for his role in building up Apple as a technology leader; however as a company, Apple is very much a part of the system called ‘Planned Obsolescence” – a policy of deliberately designing a product that has a limited life span, so that consumers are forced to replace it after a period of time.

This is great for manufacturers as it keeps the economic machine chugging along with repeat sales, but what about the ecological and social costs of having to replace your Apple iPad1 with iPad2 when you were just beginning to get comfortable with the former?

Constant stream of e-waste due to Planned Obsolescence

Have you ever owned a product like a camera, a phone, a fan or printer that has konked out just outside the warranty period? Have you had the experience of taking something to a service centre, only to find out that it costs a bomb to repair it, and you’re forced to buy a new one?

Frequent replacement of products in a planet of finite resources means wasteful use of rare earths (like neobdymium, indium, lanthanum, tantalum, hafnium terbium, europium) and precious metals like gold and silver which make up the components of most electronic items. Toxic PVC and plastics are also extensively used.

As a result of a throwaway culture, tons of e-waste end up in developing countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, India, Nigeria and Ghana. These translate into air, land and water pollution from cadmium, mercury and lead along with other poisonous stuff. Open air burning creates toxic conditions for workers who are unprotected by lax environmental and health standards.

Do you remember how things in your parents’ days, seemed to last a long, long time? Why and when did that begin to change into a wasteful cycle?

The film,”The Light Bulb Conspiracy” by Cosima Dannoritzer, answers this question. It is peppered with brilliant archival footage, and sets the scene in Livermore, US with the world’s longest lasting lightbulb. It has been burning since 1901 and has ironically outlived the two webcams recording it!

A cartel called Phoebus consisting of lightbulb manufacturers in Europe, US and in Asia put an end to long lasting bulbs by wanting to control their production in the 1920s. They colluded to make lightbulbs that would not last more than 1000 hours, as they figured out that it would not be economically remunerative otherwise.

With the Great Depression, the timing for planned obsolescence couldn’t have been better. In 1932, Bernard London came out with a document called, Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence.” He passionately advocated making it compulsory by law as a way out of economic depression though this wasn’t effected. It did manage to lay stronger foundations for mass production and consumerism which was taking off in a big way.

In 1954, Brook Stevens, an American industrial designer traveled all over the US to popularise the term and its perceived advantages. According to him, planned obsolescence was “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”

From then on, the concept had become entrenched, as the idea of generating sales by reducing the time between repeat purchases made so much economic rationale for manufacturers. No wonder then that Printer’s Ink, an advertising magazine stated “an article that refuses to wear out is a tragedy of business.”

Watch the 53 minute movie, “The Light Bulb Conspiracy” here and we’ll look at what manufacturers and consumers need to do to prevent this system from breaking down- a system based on unsustainable use of natural resources, and one that is precariously predicated on ever increasing consumer credit.


What should manufacturers and consumers do?

Manufacturers: One fundamental and systemic change that needs to be brought about is by rethinking engineering design – a concept called “Cradle to Cradle” which is elucidated in the book of the same name by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

Braungart who appears in the movie explained the philosophy behind the book: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things during his visit to Singapore last year. We captured it in our blog Michael Braungart: Do Good Not Less Bad where he strongly believes that right product design can solve most problems – where components can and should be made non-toxically, and returned to the manufacturer for disassembly and reuse in the next upgrade.

In our interview with Janet Unruh, author of the book, “Recycle Everything, Why We Must, How We Can” she shows how to operationalise this concept, through a practical model for manufacturers, which is remunerative at the same time.

The electrical and electronics industry needs to change from a ‘selling’ to a ‘leasing’ model. Most of the time, we as consumers don’t need to ‘own’ a gadget. We only need to ‘hire’ the services of a TV, a cell phone, a washing machine and so on for a few years – after which it can go back to the company. The company should then reassemble it, incorporating the latest innovations. This would vastly reduce the demand for new materials and the problem of e-waste.

Consumers: We need to voice our concerns to manufacturers, and write in to company managements, to government and to mainstream media that this system is flawed, and that we demand for the sake of a sustainable planet, longer lasting products made with quality components, with strong manufacturer take-back schemes.

Most importantly, we must resist our urge to go in for the latest fad or design, and stay off the treadmill of rapid product upgrades.


Further links you may be interested in:

For Singapore based consumers:

The ideal situation would be for companies to take back their products and reuse the components, but during the transition, recyling rates can be enhanced. Check out these resources for recycling in Singapore:

Recycling Point Dot Com is a private intiative to recycle both domestic and office waste. See here for the list of recyclables

The Singapore Environment Council (SEC) provides a list of recycling options for Nokia and Motorola phones, and HP ink cartridges.

Visit National Environment Agency‘s website  for a list of local dealers who collect e-waste.

EWTT: Annie Leonard: The Story of Electronics

The Story of Stuff.com : An excellent animation by Annie Leonard on our wasteful materials economy

YouTube: Post Carbon Institute : Who killed Economic Growth?

YouTube: Re-thinking Progress: The Circular Economy


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Posted by on Aug 26 2011. Filed under Electronics and E-Waste. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Comments for “The Light Bulb Conspiracy: The Story of Planned Obsolescence”

  1. [...] existed at that time to make light bulbs that lasted over 2500 hours. There is great article here that goes into the social and environmental impacts of planned obsolescence much better that I have [...]

  2. [...] fault for e-waste and fail to mention consumers’ role in the process. One article however, titled The Light Bulb Conspiracy: The Story of Planned Obsolescence, based off the documentary The Light Bulb Conspiracy, more accurately reports the issue by putting [...]

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