Taking a Bite Out of Designed Obsolescence

Apple is a massive company with global influence. If they set ambitious goals, and then achieve them, the impact will be immense and go beyond their own balance sheet and impact report.

Let’s get the bad part out of the way first. If I had to pick the worst Apple business practice (even my puns are bad right now), it would be their excessive reliance on designed obsolescence. Let’s peel that term back a bit (one more bad pun, for good measure).

Designed obsolescence is the practice of creating a product that is meant to have a shorter-than-necessary life span, and businesses utilize it in many ways. An example is using hard-to-replace or fragile components in a product instead of readily available and durable components. When the product breaks, people have to buy a new one. Another example is releasing products with small technological advancements compared to the previous generation, even if the company has already created larger technological advancements. Why sell one product that is 20% better when you can sell two that are each 10% better!

I would argue that Apple is guilty on both counts, and at least a couple more. Have you noticed that Apple stops supporting the software on iPads and iPhones that are several generations old? That’s designed obsolescence. And the decision to eliminate the headphone port on their iPhones, prompting many customers to then replace their wired headphones with Bluetooth ones that Apple conveniently sells? Also designed obsolescence.
Look, Apple isn’t the only company that does this. It’s actually quite common, but its ubiquity doesn’t change the fact that designed obsolescence leads to excessive energy consumption and massive amounts of waste. It’s why redesigning commerce, the Seventh Front of Mount Sustainability as formulated by Ray Anderson and his team at Interface, is so important. What if our economic system didn’t reward companies that relied on designed obsolescence?
That said, I’m here to also tell you what excites me about Apple. In short, they’re setting the right goals. Take a look at their Environmental Responsibility Report.
Apple is a massive company with global influence. If they set ambitious goals, and then achieve them, the impact will be immense and go beyond their own balance sheet and impact report. When Apple changes their business, whole market sectors must shift in their wake.
So what are the ambitious goals? The first one is 100% renewable energy.
“Ho hum,” you might say. “Aren’t a bunch of companies announcing 100% renewable energy goals?”
Sure, but not like Apple. In addition to powering all Apple facilities with renewable energy, they are pledging to shift their entire supply chain to 100% renewable energy. On top of that, Apple adds to their carbon footprint calculation the estimated electricity used to power Apple products for their whole lifespans. That means their renewable energy commitment extends all the way to the silly videos of my son I take on my phone.
I also love the simple elegance of another big Apple pledge – to one day stop mining the earth altogether. They are working to close the loop on their manufacturing processes, taking large steps forward in designing products for disassembly and reclaiming non-renewable materials. Accomplishing this goal would be groundbreaking, especially considering how reliant our societies have become on electronics.
They’ve also made some strong pledges on water usage and renewable packaging, but I’ll leave it to you to read their report if you’re interested. For now, I’ll make one final point. While designed obsolescence is a problem now, it becomes rather benign if companies can achieve 100% renewable energy goals while closing their manufacturing loops. As far as I’m concerned, Apple can make a new iPhone every year if they can do so sustainably. They aren’t there yet, but I’m cheering them on!