Programmed obsolescence: expiration dates for our digital equipment?

Written by Léa Bitard

June 5, 2022

Written by Léa Bitard

June 5, 2022

Between 1985 and 2015, the average life of a computer was divided by 3, from 11 to 4 years. In 2017, in Europe, the average lifespan of a smartphone is less than two years.

But how is this possible, given all the technical advances that have taken place in this field?

A story about a light bulb …

To begin, I suggest you a small return in the past, in 1901 more precisely. That year, a light bulb manufactured by Adolphe Chaillet was installed in the Livermore fire station in the United States. Since then, it has almost never been turned off, exceeding one million hours of operation. It is considered the most durable light bulb in the world.

Today, the average life of an incandescent bulb is much less: only a few thousand hours. The reason for such a change is the creation in the 1920s of the Phoebus Cartel. This was one of the first lobbies that brought together the largest lamp manufacturers of the time. Together they decided to reduce the life of the bulbs to 1000 hours of use, while keeping them at high prices. This is considered as one of the first attempts to implement programmed obsolescence on such a large scale.


Programmed obsolescence : what is it ? 

According to Larousse, the term “programmed obsolescence” includes all techniques intended to reduce, during the design of a product, its life span or use, in order to lead the consumer to replace it more frequently. It allows the manufacturer to increase his profits, by making you consume more than necessary.

Even if in France it is forbidden since 2021 by the Article L441-2 of the Code of the Consumption, we still find it everywhere! From your computer or smartphone to your socks and nylon stockings, not to mention your washing machine…


The different obsolescence strategies

But then, what are the different techniques of programmed obsolescence put in place by manufacturers?

First of all, there is psychological (or aesthetic) obsolescence, which aims at reducing the life span and the use of a good by psychological factors. The image of the product is quickly devalued by the user through frequent renewals of the range, intensive marketing campaigns, fashion effects, etc. It is worth noting that in 2017, 88% of French people already change their smartphone while the old one is still working, according to ADEME.

Then, there is technical obsolescence. It only targets one of the components of a product, which has a limited life span. Once the component has ceased to function, the entire device is no longer usable. This is either due to the fact that the component in question is not repairable or that there are no more spare parts (indirect obsolescence).

Finally, software obsolescence corresponds to the decrease in the usability of a digital device (smartphone, tablet, computer,..) due to the unavailability or malfunction of a software (see CGEDD report).

And what does this mean in practice ?

In 2010, the documentary ‘Ready to Throw’ was released, directed by Cosima Dannoritzer. The documentary traces programmed obsolescence through several concrete examples. For example, the Epson printers, containing a chip programmed to count the number of prints made by the device. After about 18’000 printings, the printers concerned sent an error message that encouraged the user to replace the device.

A few years later, on February 7, 2018, Apple was fined 25 million euros for “deceptive commercial practices by omission”. The French association Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée (HOP) accuses the company of deliberately slowing down its older smartphone models to speed up the repurchase of new phones by consumers. A few months earlier, the American giant had admitted to voluntarily slowing down the performance of its phones after a certain period of use in order to “extend their lifespan”. Indeed, the company explained that lithium-ion batteries have difficulties to respond to many requests from users when they age. Slowing down the phone’s performance would therefore help preserve the battery.  An argument that obviously did not entirely convince the public prosecutor’s office…



The good news? There are initiatives to fight against such practices!

Since January 2021, as part of the Anti-Waste for a Circular Economy law (loi Anti-Gaspillage pour une Économie Circulaire in french), the French government has implemented a reparability index on electrical and electronic equipment. It assigns each piece of equipment a score out of 10 based on 5 categories of technical and commercial criteria such as dismantlability, availability or price of spare parts. However, the index is not perfect, and there is still room for improvement. Indeed, it is evaluated by the sellers themselves and random checks are carried out to ensure the conformity of the index. Nevertheless, in case of fraud, the fine would amount to 15’000 euros at most, which is insignificant for digital giants. For more information, our partners at GreenIT.fr have written a full article on the reparability index.

Beyond the French-speaking world, citizens, companies and organizations support the Right to Repair. For example, the European Commission is planning a number of initiatives to improve product repairability, including legislation on the right to repair, consumer empowerment for green transition, a sustainable products initiative, design requirements for electronics, and measures to make the general economic environment more repair-friendly.

On the other side of the Atlantic, activists like Louis Rossmann also support the right to repair their equipment. He posts videos on his YouTube channel to show users how to repair their devices themselves, also with the aim of raising awareness of the Right to Repair.


The committed actors

What about us?  How do we do it, as consumers?

If you are not at all familiar with the issues of responsible digital technology, you can participate in a la fresque du numérique workshop. It’s a fun workshop to raise awareness about the environmental and social issues that arise from our use of digital technology.

To repair your equipment, iFixit offers free step-by-step repair guides for a multitude of digital equipment divided by brand and model. In fact, they have written a Repair Manifesto.

To get a smartphone, the Commown cooperative rents Fairphones at discounted rates but also Why! laptops from Why Open Computing. In this way, they maintain an economy of functionality, which aims to offer a product as a service. It is therefore in Commown’s interest to offer products that are as sustainable as possible!

And finally, if buying is the only option, think about refurbished equipment like those offered by Back Market.




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