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Guiltinan_-_Product_obsolescence_09

Guiltinan_-_Product_obsolescence_09 - Springer 2008 Journal...

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Creative Destruction and Destructive Creations: Environmental Ethics and Planned Obsolescence Joseph Guiltinan ABSTRACT. Three decades ago, planned obsolescence was a widely discussed ethical issue in marketing class- rooms. Planned obsolescence is topical again today because an increasing emphasis on continuous product development promotes shorter durables replacement and disposal cycles with troublesome environmental conse- quences. This paper offers explanations of why product obsolescence is practiced and why it works. It then examines the ethical responsibilities of product developers and corporate strategists and their differing responses to this problem. Pro-environment product design and marketing practices and innovative government policies may alleviate the problem over time. However, given the current lack of understanding about consumer replace- ment and disposal behavior, it is questionable as to whether these practices and policies will be sufficiently informed to be effective. Thus, marketing scholars have a significant opportunity to contribute to sustainable dura- bles product development. KEY WORDS: planned obsolescence, durable goods, environment, product development When I first started teaching marketing, Vance Packard’s ( 1960 ) criticisms of planned obsolescence were widely discussed by students and faculty. The prevailing view was that it was unethical to design products that would wear out ‘‘prematurely’’ (i.e., have useful lives that were well below customer expectations), particularly if they were costly to replace. Today, the mounting numbers of func- tioning durable goods ending up in landfills have led to renewed criticism of product obsolescence. Sources indicate that in North America over 100 million cell phones and 300 million personal computers are discarded each year, and only 20,000 televisions are refurbished each year while 20 million are sold, resulting in tremendous envi- ronmental damage from lead, mercury, and toxic glass (cf. Boland, 2001 ; Slade, 2006 ). Additionally, when electronics are recycled, 50%–80% are shipped to third world nations where workers use dangerous, primitive processes for extracting recyclable materi- als, often exposing themselves to toxic gases in the process (Associated Press, 2007 ). So, while advances in technology and increasingly skillful industrial design have enabled firms to develop innovative products in virtually every durable goods category, the nature of the materials that are often required and the rapid pace of product upgrading have resulted in negative environmental consequences for consumers and society (cf. Calcott and Walls, 2005 ). Per Figure 1 , two aspects of new product devel- opment strategy drive these environmental problems. First, frequent introductions of replacement products increase the opportunities and motivation to replace functioningdurables.MindfulofSchumpeter’stheory that established firms are often replaced by innovators (through a ‘‘creative destruction’’ process), today’s
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