Planned Obsolescence: A Corporate Conspiracy

The Lightbulb Conspiracy

Directed by Cosima Dannoritzer (2010)

Film Review

The Lightbulb Conspiracy is about the history of planned obsolescence, ie deliberate strategies by multinational corporations to reduce the lifespan of common products to increase consumer demand.

The documentary traces the origin of planned obsolescence to 1920, when a secret cartel of lightbulb manufacturers agreed to reduce the lifespan of a lightbulb from 2,500 to 1,000 hours.

It describes a similar conspiracy by the textile industry to make nylon fibers less durable. The first nylon stockings never got runs in them. Manufacturers couldn’t take the risk that women would only buy two or three pairs in a lifetime.

The film also reveals Ipod’s “dirty little secret;” namely Apple’s coy scheme to power the Ipod with irreplaceable batteries that die after 18 months, as well as explaining the secret chip in printers that automatically disables them after a designated number of copies.

Like the victim in the film, about six months ago I started getting a message that my “ink reservoir” was full and I needed to return my printer for servicing. Of course we all know “servicing” cost three times as much as a new printer. Following the filmmaker’s advice, I easily found free software on the Internet that overrides this chip.

The Lightbulb Conspiracy ends by profiling some of the Cradle to Cradle* activists who are fighting back against planned obsolescence and taking active steps to reduce the mountain of electronic waste it creates.


*Cradle to cradle design is a zero waste approach to the design of products and systems. It models human industry on nature’s processes  – viewing materials as nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms.

11 thoughts on “Planned Obsolescence: A Corporate Conspiracy

  1. Dr. Bramhall, thanks for sharing another must-see video. Those of us who have been around for a while know that things don’t last as long as they used to. Since moving to the US, I’ve also observed that it’s cheaper to buy a new product than to repair a defective one in current use.

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    • With nearly everything in the US, shoes, clothes, appliances, furniture, it’s always cheaper to buy new than to repair stuff. You used to be able to get knives and scissors sharpened, but now you have to throw them away and buy new ones.

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  2. Sometimes similar tactics that are a little more subtle can be even more destructive. Monsanto created a self-terminating seed that was supposed to produce excellent yields for a single season. When crop yields did not meet expectations countless thousands of poor, indebted farmers were driven to bankruptcy and suicide in India. Who Killed the Electric Car? was a 2006 documentary that proved that workable electric car were released in a test program in the 1990’s. These leases were terminated by GM, Toyota and Honda after intense lobbying against public charging stations by big oil.

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    • I totally forgot about Who Killed the Electric Car. It used to be on YouTube but has been taken down. The big automakers and oil companies were also responsible for destroying the public transportation system in Los Angeles.

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      • There were Congressional hearings in the summer of 2008 when oil hit a record high of $147. Nancy Pelosi commented that oil moved higher in one day per barrel than a barrel of oil traded for in 1998 (about $11). Also, Russ Feingold confirmed that GM bought and buried a Renault engine patent that got 100 mpg back in the 1920’s. Although you would think that an auto company would jump on such an efficient engine, there is so much cross ownership and backroom deals in corporate America that this kind of thing makes sense in that environment.

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  3. Interesting that LED light bulb is not following the old model but maybe they have priced it to scare customers away just like printers with ink wells. Funny thing though my 4 year old computer has had new lease on life with free windows 10. To be fair there are a lot of products that have improved like the automobile that do last longer.

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    • They mention the inventor of the LED lightbulb in the film. I think LED lightbulbs have become popular due to their energy efficiency and pressure from the sustainability movement. I must say I’m really happy to see women rebel against having to buy new nylons every week – most of the women I know simply refuse to buy them. They either go bare legged or wear tights, which are much more durable.

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  4. Pingback: Planned Obsolescence: A Corporate Conspiracy, Film and Review | Talesfromthelou

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