(I’m cleaning up my archives and updating selected articles. Funnily enough, this post is getting increased attention because a lot of students have been assigned homework after watching this film as part of their “distance learning”.)

The Story of Stuff (embedded below) is a short animated film about the lifecycle of material goods. Even though it was released over 10 years ago, the overall message of anti-consumerism and sustainability still applies to our current world. There are debates about specific statements from the movie which you can find on the film’s Wikipedia page, but I’m not here to defend the entire video. I believe that people should be able to watch something with a critical mind and not necessarily agree with every single point.

Here I am focusing on the discussion of planned vs. perceived obsolescence, which is approximately at 12:35 if you wanted to skip directly to that part.

Here are the definitions from the film glossary:

Planned obsolescence: designing and producing products in order for them to be used up (obsolete) within a specific time period. Products may be designed for obsolescence either through function, like a paper coffee cup or a machine with breakable parts, or through “desirability,” like a piece of clothing made for this year’s fashion and then replaced by something totally different next year. Planned obsolescence is also known as “design for the dump.”

Perceived obsolescence: the part of planned obsolescence that refers to “desirability”. In other words, an object may continue to be functional, but it is no longer perceived to be stylish or appropriate, so it is rendered obsolete by perception, rather than by function. Fashion is all about perceived obsolescence, and it could be said that perceived obsolescence is the number one “product” of the advertising industry.

Non-Consumer Alarm! In other words, companies have made easy it is to identify “non-consumers”, which usually comes with a negative connotation in our society. Let’s take cars. (Is it ever “cool” to drive an old car that isn’t a collectible?) Models change very often, even if just slightly, so it’s very easy to tell if you have an older car vs. a newer model. My wife and I have been half-jokingly told by our friends and co-workers that we need to buy nicer cars that better match our job titles and/or income levels. Yet even the newest cars pretty much do the same stuff. I could be driving a 15-year-old well-maintained Camry and add a smartphone for GPS/music/podcasts, and a blindfolded passenger probably couldn’t tell the difference.

The next time you are in public, look at the visible stuff that people own. Notice how easily you can figure out whether it was bought within the last few years.

Bottom line. I still buy stuff. You probably still buy stuff. However, we should at least acknowledge the pressure to own the most current version of everything, even if we are replacing something that still works. Cars. Cell phones. Water containers (Hydroflask). Headphones (Airpods). Kitchens that “need” remodeling because they are outdated. Shoes. Winter jackets. Purses. Clothing.

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Planned vs. Perceived Obsolescence from My Money Blog.


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