A great article just appeared in the New Yorker comparing the history of light bulbs and the challenge of switching from an industry structure around planned obsolescence to an industry built around durable products — effectively circular economy strategies.
Some notable sections of the article:
The thousand-hour life span of the modern incandescent dates to 1924, when representatives from the world’s largest lighting companies—including such familiar names as Philips, Osram, and General Electric (which took over Shelby Electric circa 1912)—met in Switzerland to form Phoebus, arguably the first cartel with global reach. The bulbs’ life spans had by then increased to the point that they were causing what one senior member of the group described as a “mire” in sales turnover. And so, one of its priorities was to depress lamp life, to a thousand-hour standard. The effort is today considered one of the earliest examples of planned obsolescence at an industrial scale.
When the new bulbs started coming out, Phoebus members rationalized the shorter design life as an effort to establish a quality standard of brighter and more energy-efficient bulbs. But Markus Krajewski, a media-studies professor at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, who has researched Phoebus’s records, told me that the only significant technical innovation in the new bulbs was the precipitous drop in operating life. “It was the explicit aim of the cartel to reduce the life span of the lamps in order to increase sales,” he said. “Economics, not physics.”
And in a bit more hopeful section for the future:
“My starting point is, get the economics right,” Tim Cooper, a design professor who heads the sustainable-consumption research group at Nottingham Trent University, told me.[…]
In a 2010 book that he edited, “Longer Lasting Products,” Cooper suggests possible ways to accomplish this: Minimum standards of durability, repairability, and upgradeability. A decrease in taxes on labor and an increase on energy and raw materials, to help make it cheaper to repair or recondition things and more expensive to make new ones. Sales-tax rates based on product lifetimes. Longer consumer guarantees and warranties. Labelling programs or rating schemes that let consumers know how long stuff will last.
The economic model to aim for, Cooper said, is founded on people buying fewer, but better, products, and paying more across those products’ lifetimes. The manufacture of quality goods would employ more people, and the goods would sell at higher prices. A dramatic expansion of the repair-and-servicing sector, the secondhand market, and the sharing economy would provide additional levels of commercial activity. And while consumers would likely end up spending less money on stuff over all, that would free up income for services and investment.