Planned Obsolescence: A great challenge for supply chain management

The world of supply chains is not free from ethical dilemmas. A frequent question of any consumer is related to what happens with the furniture, electronics, or clothes that are defective or that have stopped working, or, even though they keep doing it, they have become obsolete or unfashionable. Where do these products go? Does it really happen, as the big companies tell us, showing themselves as great examples of sustainability, that those products are effectively recycled? Do they really recycle and use their parts to make new products? Or are they thrown away in landfills in the Third World?

These are really uncomfortable questions for big companies like Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft. Each year, these three large technology companies convene mass events announcing their main innovations, although sometimes the changes are not celebrated with optimism, especially after the products they sell end quickly in a drawer, in the storage, or in the trash.

Planned obsolescence is the end-of-life planning of products and services. It is the subtext of our capitalist narrative and the secret engine of our consumer society. In our daily lives, we dream to own products for living the experience of buying brand new stuff, to renew the closet, to change the car we have for a new model. Any excuse is enough to make the decision to buy things we don’t really need after being overflowed by advertising.

Apple, for example, is committed to improving the repair process of its damaged products. However, all users of Apple products know that it is impossible to repair them (or absurdly expensive.) Apple devices are reported as non-modular, a feature negatively labeled by environmental activists. Nevertheless, designing fragmented gadgets by different parts goes against their trend to develop increasingly thin and compact products.

Just check the following video: Planned Obsolescence Documentary

This famous documentary shows the real problems of planned obsolescence, from an environmental, social, and economic point of view. In this video, the big companies show their true colors since the only purpose of making products that fail, break, and require repairing (when possible) in a short time is a huge economic benefit, proportional to a damage of the same or worst magnitudes.

Read also: Why is still technology the best competitive advantage for your supply chain? by David Kiger

Planned obsolescence is not only the responsibility of the manufacturers since consumers are increasingly asking for cheaper products. While considering similar products, manufactured with much more quality and with the aim of lasting longer, consumers usually choose the cheaper ones. After all, “in two years it will no longer be trendy.”

This supply chain problem, perhaps, is the one that produces the larger stream of reverse logistics flows, and it that has led to growing interest in reverse logistics in recent years. The variety of flows is quite diverse and points out a large number of examples: cars, tablets, laptops, etc. To a certain extent, the flows of products that have not yet reached the end of their technical or economic life, such as products that are no longer used for fashion, are included in this category. The flows of products that are at the end of their service life or have arrived at the moment of their scheduled obsolescence generally originate in the decisions of consumers. However, there are several reasons that encourage companies to deal with such products.

These products are a source of value for which it is attractive to recover them. When direct reuse is impossible, other options such as reprocessing and recycling may be attractive. If these products can generate economic benefits, they are attractive for both manufacturers and specialized recyclers. The importance of the entry barriers to this market, such as the access to consumers and the knowledge of the product, determine the relative advantage of both groups of actors in the logistics chain.

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Image courtesy of James Provost at

Usually, when an important group of products returns at the end of their service life is due to environmental regulations. Generally, it is the original manufacturer that is responsible for the products that it has made which have reached the end of their service life. While it may be that the reverse flow of products is performed by third-party companies, the manufacturer shares organizational and economic responsibility. On the other hand, when a lack of economic benefits from reuse coexists and legal restrictions on disposal coexist, a frequent solution is the recycling of the material. Typical examples may be derived from the German legislation on electronic components or the EU legislation on end-of-life vehicles.

Asset protection may also give rise to end-of-life product flows. Original equipment manufacturers may attempt to recover their products after use to prevent competitors from accessing their recovery by taking advantage of their technology or brand image. For example, this is taken into account by manufacturers of printer cartridges, who try to retrieve them empty when the consumer has already used them. Most frequently used products are recovered, reused or recycled.

Dealing with this reverse logistics problems is one of the main supply chain management challenge, indeed!

* Featured Image courtesy of Tookapic at


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