State of Green Business

Built to last: The environmental impact of planned durability

In 1962, VW ran an ad campaign that emphasized the durability of the model by famously captioning a blank page with: “No point in showing the 1962 Volkswagen, it still looks the same.”

In 1924, when the automobile market began reaching its saturation point, manufacturers embarked on a new marketing strategy, revealing new design changes on a yearly basis. The idea of "this year’s model" was born and consumers were encouraged to feel that they should replace their car annually. Industrial designer Brooks Stevens defined this trend in the 1950s as "instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary." And that’s the catch — needing to re-invest before you should have to.

There was a time when manufacturers prided themselves on making products that were built to last. But while the skills and knowledge required to build enduring technology exist, planned obsolescence encourages us to ditch current models and buy more, whether a new phone every year or new office equipment every few years.

The other side of this coin is planned durability.

Instead of assuming that planned obsolescence is necessary for stimulating consumption, planned durability recognizes that technology that is intentionally engineered to last longer is better for the environment and translates into fewer disruptions, fewer failures and ultimately drives down costs over the long term. Resistance to planned obsolescence has been around for some time: in 1962, VW ran an ad campaign that emphasized the durability of the model by famously captioning a blank page with: "No point in showing the 1962 Volkswagen, it still looks the same."

The rise in throwaway technology is short-sighted when it comes to both users and the environment. At Lexmark, we understand that most multi-function printers, PCs or monitors are built to last on average three to five years. But the reality is that they are normally installed for at least six years. After the five-year mark, they can malfunction, leading to costly downtime and higher maintenance costs, and leaving businesses with a stark choice of putting up with these added costs or paying for a complete lifecycle refresh.

In addition to greater costs, turnover contributes to electronic waste, or e-waste, which can worsen global health and environment issues. The United Nations estimates that we generate around 50 million tons of e-waste each year, a large portion of which ends up in developing countries. When these products are not recycled properly, they can pose a threat to the environment.

Thankfully, we aren’t the only ones advocating for planned durability. In August, the European Union passed a resolution designed to limit planned obsolescence in electronics, which includes provisions to establish minimum resistance criteria for product categories, extend product guarantees to fit potential repair lengths and provide spare parts for the lifetime of the product at reasonable prices. Businesses and consumers can do their part as well. Here are some considerations:

  • Product manufacturers should incorporate recycled raw materials and parts traditionally made from plastics with stronger, more durable and longer-lasting metal equivalents, where this improves lifecycle performance and lessens environmental impact. Long-life components reduce interventions, improve serviceability, withstand tough environments better and save time and money for users. Lexmark took this approach with its latest multi-function print (MFP) devices, which are built to last well beyond the typical three- to five-year MFP lifespan. (Learn more about the company's sustainability and corporate social responsibility policies here.) 
  • Users and manufacturers must trust each other to co-create an eco-responsible relationship concerning the daily use of the technology. Power, connectivity and updates all affect the optimization of equipment and its long-term use. A few examples of how customers and vendors can work together to improve the durability of products include: appointing dedicated contacts/teams for manufacturers to liaise with; evangelizing to employees using the technology; defining specific sustainability performance indicators; and support in collecting and setting up logistics chains for restocking. 
  • It’s not just consumers that can use their dollars to advocate for planned durability. Businesses can support other likeminded companies by ensuring their supply chains include a history of planned durability. Research shows it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s also good for their bottom line: a recent study by the Shelton Group revealed that 64 percent of consumers who said it’s "extremely important" for a company to take a stand on a social issue said they were "very likely" to purchase a product based on that commitment. 

The need to focus on extending product durability is clear. Working together to more fully develop and expand the circular economy business model has the power to reduce the negative impact created by early product obsolescence. In such an environment, business and customers can work cooperatively to identify new approaches that extend product life and materials usage while reducing environmental impact.