Updated: Nov 22, 2020
BY FRAN CRESSWELL
Picture your favorite jeans. Comfortable, durable, and they make your butt look great. Ever thought about how they’re made? Your jeans started out as individual cotton plants, probably somewhere in the American South, or India. When enough cotton was picked, it was dyed using an environmentally terrifying process. Next, it was shaped into what you’re wearing weekly, likely by Chinese workers working 15 hours a day for a measly $115 a month. And the worst part? Your jeans are designed to die in a few months.
That’s right - all this suffering, caused to people and planet. And they’re not even designed to survive your day-to-day life. But it’s not all negative - I want to talk to you about the concept of Planned Obsolescence and how we can avoid it. In doing so, we can change the planet. One pair of jeans at a time. Let’s jump into it.
What is Planned Obsolescence?
The idea of planned obsolescence was first conceived in 1928 by marketing pioneer Justus George Frederick. He claimed it was “necessary to induce people to buy an ever-increasing variety of things, not in order to use them, but to activate commerce and discard them after a short period of time."
In other words, planned obsolescence means that your clothes are not designed to last. In fact, they are designed to die. Companies design products to be discarded prematurely, whether they cease to function or simply to be desirable. Just so that the consumer (that’s us!) will buy more regularly.
This article focuses on the fashion industry, but let’s be clear: planned obsolescence affects all areas of our lives, from technology to cars, and domestic appliances.
Where can you see planned obsolescence in fashion?
My 100 year old grandmother reminisces on decades gone by when clothes were seen as an investment. Items were designed to last many years, and be easily taken in and out. Fast forward to today, and clothes are almost never constructed in this way.
As the cost of clothing has been driven down, so too have production quality and garment workers’ wages. There's no expectation garments will last more than a few months. We're so used to the idea that fixing our clothes is not worth the cost or effort. Hell - it can feel like there's little incentive if a pair of jeans costs the same as lunch!
This lowering of quality also has serious environmental implications. Around 60% of clothing is made from polyester: a cheap, plastic-based fabric. Most of which will be in one piece in landfill long after we're dead.
'Psychological obsolescence' is also at play in fashion
Psychological obsolescence is when we’re intentionally made to feel dissatisfied with products that still work perfectly. We’re surrounded by psychologically manipulative marketing, influencers who will never be seen in the same outfit twice, and a constant influx of cheap new items.
Fast fashion retailers (hello, H&M and Zara) have as many as 52 ‘seasons’ a year. A stark contrast to the 2 seasons of the not-too-distant past. Their entire business structure is designed to encourage consumers to buy ever more.
As a result, many people find themselves wanting to set aside what they have in favour of something more new and shiny.
And when retailers can’t make an item undesirable, they can certainly make it unavailable. Destroying old stock is a common practice for luxury and fast fashion brands alike, in order to make way for new items. In 2017, Burberry destroyed clothes, accessories and perfume worth £28.6m to "protect its brand".
How can you avoid planned obsolescence?
It doesn't have to be this way. Avoiding planned obsolescence is a huge topic in itself, but here are three simple things you can do today:
Curate your closet - find items you love and feel amazing in, not just the moment’s ‘must have’ item. Find what works for you and go with that.
Buy less but better - buying less means you can invest in higher quality pieces that will stand the test of time.
Take care of what you buy - items last much longer when you take good care of them. Maybe that’s learning to make some adjustments yourself, or finding a local tailor and cobbler.
There’s no denying that planned obsolescence is a huge part of how the fashion industry works. Following these easy steps will allow you to take a step back and break the cycle of planned obsolescence in your wardrobe.
It’s important to remember that we have a choice. A choice to do better for our mental health and our bank balances, and benefit the environment and workers across the world. Stop buying poor quality clothes and supporting companies that don’t act in our best interests.