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Resign ourselves to living in a disposable world?

Maybe you, consumer friend, do not know this, but the truth is that the vast majority of articles and appliances used in your everyday life have their days numbered.

The reality is that industries, deliberately, give the products a limited lifespan, so you will necessarily have to replace it in a more or less short period.

It is the named “planned obsolescence,” a common practice in today’s world corporations, justified by the possibility to increase profits and generate wealth, and that legally, is based on free enterprise.

The book “Aproximaciones jurídicas a la obsolescencia programada” (Legal approaches to planned obsolescence),  published by the Externado de Colombia Publishing House, coordinated by expert Jesús Alfonso Soto Pineda containing studies by Constitutional and Consumer Law scholars, is a pioneer on the subject, in Colombia and the world.

In general, the authors claim the need for legislation and call attention to the relative nature of the Law which abets companies to schedule the obsolescence of consumer goods deliberately.  The Law clearly should be balanced with other fundamental rights, such as those guaranteeing citizens’ health and healthy environment, as well as those protecting the economic situation of the less privileged.

  • The blender is not working
  • But – how can that be, it is less than a year old!
  • We will need to have it repaired
  • Perhaps it would be cheaper to buy a new one?

Similar conversations occur daily in Colombian households as a reflection of this reality. Yes, consumer goods last a short time, coupled with industrial policies to increase prices or hinder the availability of spare parts and authorized repair dealers.

  • My aunt’s truck has been in the shop for two weeks …
  • How come?
  • The parts had to be ordered from abroad because it is an old model.

As explained by the coordinator, the book, the result of a research project, “focuses on the study of planned obsolescence centering on all branches and protected legal property, from Public and Private Law standpoints.”

In her article “La obsolescencia programada: tensión constitucional y abuso del derecho,” Magdalena Correa, Director of the Externado Constitutional Law Department, defines programmed obsolescence, as a “set of techniques, strategies, or business practices aiming to artificially reduce the durability of manufactured products, by the design, planning, projection, and control of the components’ lifecycle.” This is done to encourage repeated consumption of such goods ‘within a short period;’ that is, ‘ boost demand, stimulate consumption, encourage individuals to purchase other products, and reinforce early re-purchase’ after the loss of goods’ “functionality” or expiration date.”

Planned obsolescence takes different forms; one, is objective, corresponding to a product’s real and effective completion of its useful life. In this case, a business scheme is usually established by which the cost of repairing an appliance is equal or higher than the cost of a new one, and where technicians repair services are readily discouraged. A story well known by all consumers.

A technical planned obsolescence occurs as a result of technological innovation when improvements to products entice consumers to replace them. We must change the phone as the new ones are more intelligent, speak, and we can talk to them; because the camera is high resolution, and because it reminds us of things to do.

There is another type of obsolescence – subjective, occurring even if the device is working perfectly and has the original features and functions. However, the owner no longer wants it and feels the need (created by marketing and sales experts) to purchase a new one, which becomes a “magic wand” giving the buyer prestige and social status.

  • A new version of the tablet just came out…
  • I’m dying to have it! I’m going to the store before they sell out!
  • But – the one you have is perfect!
  • How can I go to go to the board meeting with this outdated device?

And now: Who will defend us?

The fundamental question the authors are trying to answer is whether the industry has the right to implement policies such as planned obsolescence.

Professor Correa states:  In a State, such as Colombia, the profit purpose is legal; the freedom to getting rich has constitutional backing. Thus, in principle, a strategy such as planned obsolescence, which can directly affect profits and employment, and place consumer products within reach of the underprivileged classes, could be considered as a practice protected by free enterprise, as it is not prohibited by legislation.

But, of course, this is not the end of the story. Researchers such as Soto and Correa state in their analysis that rights such as free enterprise, cannot be considered absolute, and must be delimited by other rights representing nothing else than the common good.

Magdalena Correa says: “producing goods whose useful life is cut artificially has a collective effect. On the one hand, it impacts the financial situation of low-income populations, even more so when products can be purchased on easy-access credit terms, but with high-interest rates.  Also, it affects employment in product repair businesses.”

“However, the most negative consequences of short-life products are evident in public health and the environment.” Planned obsolescence generates a plethora of natural resources and an overflow of waste containing high levels of toxins, including arsenic, lead, nickel, among others. Accelerating production reduces non-renewable mineral availability and, at the same time, increases energy consumption.   Similarly, the pollution mentioned, not only produces damage to humans but, in general, to all out living systems… Based on the above, “integrating a limited lifespan in a product as a business strategy is contrary to sustainable production and consumption principles.”

Plus, there is more.  For example, the competition by companies practicing planned obsolescence prevents other companies from adopting policies for manufacturing quality and durable goods. To stay in the market, they have no choice but to produce cheap and disposable products, even knowing that “you get what you pay for.”

Consume misery

In his article “Una lectura ligera acerca de historias oscuras del mundo del consumo: la obsolescencia programada en su contexto capitalista avanzado,” Sociologist Daniel Briggs, Criminology Professor at the Universidad Europea de Madrid, offers the global social reality perspective underlying the practice of planned obsolescence:

“While half of the world is buying these products to satisfy their artificially created wishes, the other half works in inhumane and slavery conditions to produce the same goods, as they work in a type of “manufactured misery.”  So, in essence, the simulated pleasure of the product the consumer has purchased is the product of others’ misfortune.”

“… Competitiveness continues, and there is a constant battle among corporations to achieve benefits, regardless of social consequences; which means taking production to countries where human rights can be swept under the carpet. And, what about the rest of us? Well, we consume their misery.”

And the Law, what does it say?

The book, published by the Externado, contains, in addition to some legal proposals for the solution of this conflict, studies and research on how other countries have handled this matter.

Specifically, Professor Correa explores the possibility of resorting to the principle of “Law abuse” to deter private practices that, necessarily, are imposed on the public interest.

Based on the old maxim “not everything that is legal is honest,” requiring ethical considerations surpassing the narrow legal techniques to denote there are principles interposing  the rules, the researcher, by searching Colombian jurisprudence, especially the “Golden Court” of the 1930s, points out:

“… in exercising the powers, privileges, guarantees or requests for benefits or other regulatory elements, the owner cannot execute actions contrary to the purpose pursued, or cause actions resulting in disrespect, infringement, or unlawful involvement of the rights of others, under the penalty they are deemed unlawful and reprehensible as far as the damage produced can be reflected as an intent to harm by imprudence or negligence.

She added, “planned obsolescence may be viewed as an abuse of free enterprise as it affects collective and subjective rights protected by the Constitution, which may outweigh free enterprise rights. Especially, since more than legitimate economic interests, they represent norms ensuring the existence and human dignity, the consumers’ rights as the weak link of the relationship.”

Thus, the invitation these academics propose to the country, especially, legislators and judges, is to offer answers in an area obviously saturated with inequality.

Authors participating in the book: Andrés Mauricio Gutiérrez Bernal, Magdalena Correa Henao, Raquel Regueiro Dubra, Verónica María Echeverri Salazar, Julián E. Ospina Gómez, Mateo Sánchez García, Camilo Pabón Almanza, Jesús Alfonso Soto Pineda, William Fernando Martínez Luna, Lidia Moreno Blesa, Wilfredo Robayo Galvis, Jacqueline Hellman Moreno, and Daniel Briggs