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Intentionally flawed: planned obsolescence and corporate environmental crime (Part-1)

December 1924 was a significant time during which several prominent light bulb manufacturers, including General Electric, Osram, Philips, and Compagnie des Lampes, engaged in a conspiracy to artificially shorten the lifespan of their products. The usual standard for incandescent light bulbs burning hours was reduced from 2,500 in 1924 to 1,000 by 1940. This change significantly decreased the intended lifespan of these bulbs, which Thomas Edison and Adolphe Chaillet originally designed to last for several decades. This event, better known as the Phoebus Cartel, marks the emergence of planned obsolescence. This is a series of two blogs  on planned obsolescence and its relationship with corporate environmental crime, with this blog introducing readers to the problem in general. The next will discuss how planned obsolescence operates in India, its convergence with corporate environmental crime and the way forward.

Relationship between planned obsolescence and corporate environmental crime

Planned obsolescence is a business strategy that companies are widely using to increase profits. A company that prioritises short-term profit over quality, compromises long-term environmental sustainability. The idea behind it is to design products with a limited lifespan, making them obsolete after a certain period of time to encourage replacement. This creates a sense of urgency among consumers to purchase the latest version of a product, leading to increased sales and profits for companies. For example, a mobile phone company may use cheaper, less durable materials to produce products that need to be replaced sooner. Similarly, though companies are obligated to provide spare parts during a product’s expected lifespan, this is not always followed in practice.Companies often produce a limited number of spare parts for electronic items or stop manufacturing them altogether. This forces customers to either purchase a new product or dispose of their existing one as e-waste. The fast fashion industry is another example where companies design clothes for a short lifespan, so consumers will have to buy new clothes more often. Further, it leads to the disposal of large amounts of absolutely usable products. These avoidable practices have significant environmental consequences that cannot be ignored.

One of the most significant consequences of planned obsolescence is the constant stream of waste it creates during the course of production. Such unmindful (intentional) environmental harm caused through planned obsolescence is construed as corporate environmental crime. Corporate environmental crime is a term used to describe illegal actions or negligence by companies or corporations that harm the environment. These actions can take many forms, including pollution, illegal dumping of hazardous waste, and illegal mining. The consequences of corporate environmental crime can be severe and long-lasting, including harm to human health and the ecosystem. Air pollution intentionally caused by industrial activities, such as indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels during production is a form of common environmental crime. These activities release harmful pollutants like lead, carbon monoxide, ground-level ozone, nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides and particle pollution (often referred to as particulate matter) into the air, leading to various health problems. On the other hand, water pollution can be caused by releasing hazardous chemicals into water bodies, such as rivers, streams and oceans. This can harm aquatic life, contaminate drinking water, and make the water unsafe for human and animal use. Thus, planned obsolescence not only harms the environment through waste generation but also contributes to carbon emissions warming the planet, and causing climate change. Additionally, it drives the demand for new raw materials obtained through mining. This includes traditional materials such as coal, oil, and copper as well as a projected surge in demand for materials used in electric vehicle batteries such as lithium, manganese, cobalt, graphite, steel and nickel. This increased demand places an additional burden on the environment.

As a whole, planned obsolescence has become a common practice in today's consumer-driven world, leading to an increase in corporate environmental crime. Holding companies accountable for their actions and shifting towards a more sustainable and responsible approach to production and consumption is crucial. Therefore, the next blog will explore how planned obsolescence functions in India, its relationship with corporate environmental crime, and potential solutions.

Click here to read Part-2 of this blog.

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