We need better stuff


Elizabeth Brady ’25 is a public policy major and an English minor, and she is a member of Alpha Chi Omega. She loves art, music and movies. Email her at eabrady@wm.edu.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. 

Has anyone else noticed that things have gotten worse? Not just global politics, social divisions or political unrest (those too), but that physical things, objects, products have gotten worse? If you’ve ever worn a sweatshirt from the 80s or used that toaster that your parents got for their wedding, you can kind of feel the tactile difference in quality between it and products for sale now. 

There are a lot of reasons for this: the globalization of trade, the outsourcing and devaluation of labor, the quickening of trend cycles and so forth. I do a lot of thinking and writing about things from a very sociological lens, which means trying to figure out why things happen from a cultural standpoint. But there’s a very chicken-and-egg relationship between the recent decrease in the longevity of our items and the “disposability culture” that has made us okay with them. This is not something I think is interesting enough to write about, so instead I’m going to talk about iPhones.

Apple Inc. has been at the forefront of direct-to-market tech device innovation for a long time. The release of the first generation iPhone in 2007 fundamentally changed the way citizens of wealthy western countries live their lives. As of now, the most recent model is the iPhone 15, which operates on the iOS 17.3.1 software. Fast-rate updates to consumer technology are not in and of themselves suspicious. Apple operates on the cutting edge of technology, as it always has. What is concerning is the way Apple specifically ages out their old technology to make way for new models. This phenomenon is called planned obsolescence, which occurs when producers specifically design their products with shortened lifetimes in order to encourage the sale of new products. Apple has come under legal fire in the past for intentional hardware and software incompatibilities on newer models of the same products (and labor rights violations, but that’s another story).

Everyone knows that this is the case, and everyone knows a story of an “old” (five year old) phone randomly shutting down on them. It’s become the norm that the things we buy inevitably need to be replaced, and the acceptable life cycle of our products has shortened in our cultural perspective. We either expect or accept that our stuff won’t last as long as it used to — that it’s just not as good. 

Something about all of this gives me a bad and itchy feeling. Should we not expect that our $800 pieces of technology will last for longer than a hamster? Not only is planned obsolescence expensive, but it’s also wasteful, irresponsible and coercive.

Consumer rights legislation is extremely underdeveloped in this area because of  how difficult it is to prove that planned obsolescence is actually planned, not just the byproduct of development and innovation. Because of the naturally exponential rate of technological development, it is easy for producers to make the case that their technology is naturally aging out at faster rates. However, purposeful incompatibilities, unrepairable natural wear or excessively financially burdensome innovation could prove intent.

At this point, regulation and legislation of planned obsolescence is in its early days. The EU and other consumer rights organizations are attempting to create protections, but much work needs to be done in this area. A landmark case that creates precedents for reasonable product lifetimes could go a long way in ensuring our stuff is better.

In the meantime, although shifting market responsibility entirely to consumers is often a narrow and largely unproductive approach to creating better product markets, we do have the power to make change based on where we put our money. There’s only so much we can do, but we need to think about where we’re putting our purchasing power. Content creators like Jennifer Wang are teaching their followers about how to find quality products with real longevity and exposing the true lack of good stuff available for the average consumer. It would be extremely privileged for me to just tell everyone to buy better (usually more expensive and less accessible) stuff, but if you are able, I would encourage readers to research what makes stuff good, and how to find the best stuff at a price that works for you. 

Good stuff is good stuff, and everyone deserves the best. 


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