It all started with a light bulb. At the beginning of the 20th Century the American firm General Electric decided it was no longer in their best economic interests to make long-lasting light bulbs. So experiments began, and a way was found to make lightbulbs that would fizz out after 1000 hours. GE convinced other light bulb-producing companies to do the same and the so-called Phoebus Cartel was born. Essentially it was a platform to ensure that light bulb technology never advanced in favour of the consumer, who at the end of each 1000-hour period would have to purchase a replacement, ensuring ongoing payments. This idea became known as Planned Obsolescence.
The American automobile giant General Motors took notice of the Phoebe Cartel and, with the automobile market flagging disastrously, decided to implement its own model of Planned Obsolescence in 1924. This involved redesigning their cars every year and convincing the public it needed to upgrade regularly to the latest designs. The model was a successful one. it meant General Motors moved ahead of Ford in sales, and outstripped smaller competitors, who couldn't manage yearly car redesigns. The American economist Vance Packard would call this type of marketing strategy the 'obsolescene of desirability.'
Promoted by men such as Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud and a believer in controlling the irrational unconscious of the American consumer masses in line with increased industrial production, the 'obsolescence of desirability' and the 'obsolescence of function' (or 'contrived durability') would go on to become the cornerstone of the post-Wall Street Crash American economy.
But let's go back to the light bulb.
In particular, a light bulb in the Livermore Firemen's Park in California. This one is the world's only centennial light bulb. The Livermore Light Bulb, as it's known, has been burning for 115 years.
In 1999, a Barcelonese engineer went to visit the Livermore light bulb. The engineer, Benito Muros, couldn't get his head around the idea that something capable of lasting so long should be programmed to last so little. Angered and saddened by the thought, he decided to launch a personal crusade against la obsolencia programmada.
This crusade began with the production of a reparable light bulb - the iWOP ( 'I, Without Osolencia Programmada') - designed to last for as long as necessary.
In an interview with La Vanguardia, Muros explained, 'it wasn't originally the idea to sell them...but to transmit the idea of a return to a sustainable path.' 'Every year in Spain,' he went on to explain, 'we throw away 47 million lightbulbs...in the world it's 7000 million.'
Contamination, he stressed, could only be caused by a discarded light bulb. So if the light bulb could be made to last longer, there'd be less discarded light bulbs and hence, less contamination. This could be achieved by using the kind of electronic components used in military aviation technology. 'No-one wants a plane to fall out of the sky do they? In planes they use components of the highest quality.'
Muros claimed his iWOP light bulbs could last as long as the Livermore bulb. How could he possibly know? 'We made tests that simulated the passage of time, heat, humidity, subjecting the components to tests to accelerate their ageing.'
Instead of being made in China, the electronic components and circuits were made in Rubí, were inserted in Girona, and final assembly was done by a disabled workforce in Igualada. You can buy one online for 28€ at www.iwop.es.
If the bulb breaks before it's 10-year guarantee is up, you send it back and it's repaired. Not bad for a bulb which claims to save 96% on energy and 70% on carbon emissions.
However, Muros's iWOP idea has come up against a brick wall. Or, more specifically, an Oligopoly. This is where a few big companies collude to dominate the industry and establish a common market strategy upheld by each player. Trying to market his product, Muros's every move was met by a furious counter from the light bulb oligopoly. The eco-engineer was subjected to 'defamation, protests, shackles on distribution, lies, bribery attempts and even death threats.' This made him realize he couldn't take on the industry itself. 'It's impossible to produce a product designed to last which puts at risk the big business of multinationals.'
So he created FENNIS, a foundation to promote the 'elimination of Planned Obsolescence, the conservation of natural resources and of the quality of life of individuals.' The foundation encourages companies to design and produce long-lasting products and introuduce Fair Trade measures, whilst lobbying Spain's political parties to make a repudiation of Planned Obsolescence a part of their campaigns for the upcoming elections. That the only party to respond positively to the idea was Los Verdes shows how far there is still to go.
'The big multinationals skim the natural resources of Africa,' Muros explains, 'and later send them to Asia where both children and adults, working for miserable wages, transform them into cheap, low-quality products that are then sold in the West, again and again, consuming petrol and emitting CO2 and making us permanently indebted. I want to leave the planet in a state where my kids can survive, because at this rate there's only 20 or 30 years left.'
Now FENNIS offers its own stamp, the Sello ISSOP (Innovación Sostenible Sin Obsolencia Programmada), to award companies for their dedication to the cause against Planned Obsolescence and in recognition of their efforts to promote ecological sustainability.
As the renowned ecologist James Lovelock argues in The Revenge of Gaia, “the idea that humans are yet intelligent enough to serve as stewards of the Earth is among the most hubristic ever....Unfortunately, we are a species with schizoid tendencies, and like an old lady who has to share her house with a growing and destructive group of teenagers, Gaia grows angry, and if they do not mend their ways she will evict them ”
If the efforts of men such as Benito Muros and others like him fail, then the concept of Planned Obsolescence could easily extend to us a species. One day in the increasingly not-so-distant future we could find ourselves embodying 'obsolescence of desirability' on Planet Earth.