6 ways to stop planned obsolescence

Consumer goods just aren’t built to last anymore — and when products break, they’re almost impossible to repair, pushing consumers to toss them out and buy new.

Peter Mui | Used by permission

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They just don’t make ‘em like they used to. 

This probably sounds familiar: You buy a new appliance, electronic device or other consumer good, and it breaks down sooner than you expect. You try to get it fixed, but quickly find that’s nearly impossible (and expensive to boot). So you give up, throw it out, and buy a new replacement.

You’ve just experienced planned obsolescence — an effort by the companies that manufacture our goods to keep us coming back for more. Companies restrict access to the parts, tools and information needed to repair their products, sell hardware designed to break, and sell software that’s coded to expire after a certain date — all so we have to keep buying new products.

PIRG believes in the Right to Repair — the idea that if you own something, you should be able to fix it or have it fixed by the repair shop of your choice when it breaks. We also believe companies should do more to design their products to last with software and hardware that facilitate repair, repurposing and durability.

And since too many companies won’t do it themselves, we’re urging local, state and national governments to take action to push companies in the right direction. Here are six things we’re calling on our elected leaders to do to stop planned obsolescence:

6 things we can do to stop planned obsolescence

1. Let us fix our stuff by passing Right to Repair laws

We should be able to fix our stuff. Not long ago, most consumer goods and business products were easily repaired at home or the local fix-it shop with widely available parts. But more and more, manufacturers of cell phones, medical devices, appliances, and even tractors have implemented legal, digital and physical barriers that impede or even prevent repair. Our movement spurred the passage of first-in-the-nation Right to Repair laws in New York and Colorado in 2022. Already in 2023, more than 10 states have introduced their own Right to Repair bills. Once we win the Right to Repair on a broader scale and have the tools, software, and schematics needed to fix our stuff, the government can do more to stop the cycle that promotes disposable electronics.

2. Give consumers the right to know if a product is fixable

Consumers should know if the expensive tech they buy is fixable, especially because a high price doesn’t always equate to durability. Since 2021, France has required manufacturers to publish a repair score that rates their products from 0 to 10. Our Failing the Fix report found displaying these simple scores at point of sale, online and in stores, empowers consumers to purchase repairable products and pushes companies to build devices designed to last. We delivered a letter signed by legislators from 28 states calling on the federal government to bring repair scores to Americans.

Photo by French Ministry of the Environment | CC-BY-4.0

3. Stop software from handcuffing us to specific manufacturers

When I buy a car, I expect to be able to install basic add-ons such as a roof rack or a trailer hitch. Using software to thwart repair or to limit customers to only brand-authorized products seems to violate the basic idea that once you buy something, it’s yours. I wrote about Tesla’s software lockout of trailer hitches, but Tesla’s conduct is hardly unique. Software enables companies to control customers in ways that historically would have been viewed as deceptive or unfair. Not being able to attach safe, basic accessories to something that I own — because of software or not — is outrageous. To return the power of property possession to consumers, governments and federal agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could clarify that software lockouts violate existing laws.

4. Require removable batteries so tech isn’t disposable

Manufacturers sometimes glue or attach batteries inside products so buyers can’t remove them. Not only does this limit the lifecycle of the product to that of its fundamentally disposable battery, it also causes fires for recyclers. The European Union recently required all smartphone batteries to be replaceable and banned battery software lockouts (also called “parts pairing”) to enable repair. When manufacturers don’t let us replace batteries, like in Apple AirPods, our devices are destined for the dump.

iFixit | CC-BY-3.0
Glued in disposable batteries make repair harder, and limit the lifespan of the device.

5. Create minimum service dates for access to repair and parts 

California has the best consumer warranty law in the country. It requires any legal warranty to provide repair for seven years. Therefore, companies selling in the Golden State have to stock parts for years. Other states could bring their standards up to par with California, or set a new standard by expanding on the European Union’s directive that appliances be serviceable for 10 years. Laptops, phones, tablets and appliances that cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars should be usable and repairable for as long as possible — not disposable due to a lack of spare parts and service information.

6. Protect repurposing older tech for new uses

We can repurpose products when a competitor or third-party creates a reuse or modification tool — something that adds to, or converts the old device such that it can still be used. However, these tools are often the subject of copyright lawsuits. When our phone is no longer able to update, why not use it as a baby monitor or video doorbell? If we want companies to build these repurposing tools, governments need to make it clear that they do not violate copyrights. With legal protections, old tech can live a new life.

From Maker Faire in 2017: Samsung phone repurposed as a retro game console.

Lucas Gutterman

Director, Designed to Last Campaign, PIRG

Lucas leads PIRG’s Designed to Last campaign, fighting against obsolescence and e-waste and winning concrete policy changes that extend electronic consumer product lifespans and hold manufacturers accountable for forcing upgrades or disposal.

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