From planned obsolescence to "programmed repair"


Born in the United States in 1932, in the midst of the economic crisis, the strategy of reducing the life of objects was intended to remedy mass unemployment. A practice now denounced in the name of the fight against waste and the protection of the environment.

By Alain Beuve-Méry Posted today at 01h09, updated at 06:25

Time to Reading 3 min.

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Abandoned washing machines in the English countryside.
Abandoned washing machines in the English countryside. ENVIRONMENTAL IMAGES / UIG / PHOTONONSTOP

Critics of planned obsolescence have just won a battle: on September 26th, during the examination of the anti-waste and circular economy bill, the Senate passed an amendment obliging manufacturers to offer consumers a information 'Simple' on the "Repairability" electrical and electronic equipment. This text should satisfy all those who believe that this industrial tactic, which consists in deliberately reducing the life of objects to encourage consumption, is the new evil of the century.

In 1952, the designer Brook Stevens encourages the companies of goods to introduce "Deliberately", in the right products, "something that will make them old-fashioned, outdated, obsolete"

When this notion of planned obsolescence appeared for the first time, in 1932, in the United States, it nevertheless had no pejorative connotation. The expression is born, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, under the pen of a New York real estate agent who wants to reduce mass unemployment: for Bernard London, planned obsolescence will help to get out of the economic slump born of the stock market crash of October 1929. In a book that Allia editions have just republished, Scheduled obsolescence of objects (48 p., 6.20 euros), he says it is necessary to impose a legal expiry date on objects in order to force consumers to renew them regularly. "Our great job is to accelerate obsolescence," two years later, the boss of General Motors, the rival Henry Ford.

If, in the XIXe and at the beginning of the XXe century, the word does not yet exist, historians and economists, however, already see traces of this strategy as soon as the rise of industrial society. The rise of department stores described by Zola in his naturalistic novel To the happiness of the ladies, in 1883, tells the story of the birth of a society where the renewal of ranges becomes the alpha and omega of the capitalist economy.

A strategy openly claimed almost a century later by the American designer Brook Stevens (1911-1995): in 1952, he encouraged those responsible for everyday goods, such as textiles, household appliances or cars, to introduce "Deliberately" in the year following the placing on the market of a good product, "Something that will make these products old-fashioned, outdated, obsolete". "We are doing this for one obvious reason: to make money"he concludes.

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