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Waste not, want not: rejecting built-in obsolescence

Posted by Ben Musgrove on 9th November 2021

Like an overzealous takeaway or misguided night out, COP26 has many of us ruefully examining our bad habits. The summit aims to persuade its participants to accelerate the environmental commitments made at a similar conference in Paris in 2015, and as it’s all over the news cycle, it has many of us reflecting.

Chief among the offenders is electronic waste. The Chartered Institute for Information Technology has released research suggesting that e-waste should be the top priority for the IT sector, which produces 57.4 million tonnes of electronic waste per year. That’s the equivalent weight of 71 Golden Gate Bridges, or 2,500 Statues of Liberty, or 800,000 space shuttles, or 100,000,000 grizzly bears. Take your pick.

That volume of waste has obviously led to pledges and commitment from the major players in electronics. Apple and Amazon Web Services have reaffirmed net-zero targets and multi-billion-dollar sustainability projects, while Sony’s VP of sustainability has candidly admitted that the bottom line is a motivation: “there is a clear sign that the customer’s choice could be very much impressed by a company’s attitude toward the environment.”

These targets are good news, but we should also measure them against wider policies that lead to the piling up of electronics in the first place.

Apple is fighting the right-to-repair movement in such a dirty fight that you can’t even swap official Apple parts out of other iPhones to fix yours. Nintendo has been sued for the artificial degradation of its controller joysticks after more than 25,000 complaints, while the same issue is prevalent enough in PS5 controllers to warrant repair guides. Amazon, of course, generates hundreds of billions of dollars from the sale of electronics that you wouldn’t expect to see out a year.

The motivations here are — shock horror — economic. What we’re looking at here are business models based, in part, on the concept of ‘built-in obsolescence’: the notion of designing a product that has qualities, physical or otherwise, that encourage replacement. Your subsequent purchase of the latest or more desirable iteration is both another sale and another endorsement of the brand.

It’s not just a case of products perishing or faulty components. Restricting repairs, as Apple are notorious for, can force a purchase. Software or server report for older electronics can be pulled, rendering devices limited or useless. And then there’s the linked concept of ‘perceived obsolescence’, where a newer version of your existing product compels you to upgrade.

So, given that we don’t trust electronic conglomerates that use obsolescence as a sales tactic to reduce waste in a meaningful and principled way, what can you do to clear your conscience?

  1. Buy second hand!

Obsolescence is only effective as long as we don’t check our impulse to buy shiny new products straight out of the box. The second-hand electronics market is colossal.

Given the supply shortages over the part 18 months, many consumers have familiarised themselves with electronics like graphics cards and games consoles — provided they can avoid the scalpers. Bonus points if you can walk to the seller and pick it up.

  1. Buy repairable products

Until the right to repair is enshrined in law, it’s a sad fact that some brands are better off avoided if you want to reduce e-waste.

While asking consumers to forgo Apple products is just a tad idealistic, it’s worth considering which devices you’d actually be capable of fixing yourself if things went south. Building your own computer, and replacing hardware component by component as needed, is one example.

  1. Buy from sustainable companies

This could mean a few different things.

It might be that you buy from a local business instead of paying Amazon to send you the cardboard equivalent of Matryoshka Dolls. It might be that you stay away from companies that only pay lip service to their sustainability objectives. It might be leaning on companies that will let you part exchange existing electronics for recycling or resale.

What it isn’t is putting your iPhone 12 in landfill so you can order a 13, dropping it on the way back from a night out, and then forking out £200 for a new screen to your fruity overlords.

Ben Musgrove

Bringing a can-do attitude and an exceptional work ethic to any project, Ben joined the Wildfire team in 2017 as an intern, following a role as a business operations executive with the award-winning tech startup Housekeep. Ben has a literary brain, having gained an MA in Literature & Culture from the University of Birmingham. When his nose isn’t buried in a book he can be found heckling officials from the terraces of Woking FC and trying not to upset the neighbours too much with his electric guitar.