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Mychal Wilmes: Planned obsolence a symptom of a throw-away society

"It's called planned obsolescence.''

That was his response after listening to my long-winded complaint about the upright freezer that had broken less than a year after it was new. Although it was under warranty, the hardware store owner explained that the distant repairman could only be reached by an 800 number. It seemed foolish, given that a professional repairman for another brand lived less than two miles away.

"You could do that,'' he said, "but the warranty would be broken.

The number was called, and the guy promised to fix it within 48 hours. The time frame was no problem, given that we had been away for three days and didn't discover the freezer was broken until the once-frozen chicken, pork, beef and vegetables were already ruined. Ever-hopeful Kathy said the warranty might pay for our losses. I was disappointed when the repairman failed to show.

He said he had gotten lost. Although I don't have GPS, I understand it is capable of finding a needle in a haystack. I accepted his excuse and he promised to fix it the next day. He didn't show then, either. Kathy explained that he didn't have the right part, which in this case was a small part that ran a plastic-bladed fan. We broke the warranty and called the local guy, who pointed out the problem.


"You might as well buy a new one,'' he said. "This part costs almost as much as new freezer.''

"It's nothing but plastic,'' I complained.

Even plastic can be expensive.

The newly old freezer was replaced by another and the lesson learned about planned obsolescence. The freezer that my parents had, which was roughly as long as a mobile home and nearly as wide, worked for 40 years. Mother's washing machine lasted nearly as long — although its workload was reduced because the most gnarly work clothes were violently forced over her washing board.

Planned obsolescence also pertains to clothes, explaining why my otherwise sturdy long-sleeved dress shirts fail at the elbow. The shirts' lives could be extended by making them short-sleeved. That's what my mother would have done. However, she was a master seamstress capable of turning cloth feed sacks into undergarments and T-shirts. The pedal-powered Singer turned hand-me-downs and other clothing into new creations.

Each school year started with two new Singer-made shirts. I was allowed to pick my two favorite colors, with the understanding that the most favorite would be worn for three school days and the lesser for two. Both shirts were expected to last the entire year, so roughhousing was strongly discouraged. The penalty, I knew, would be a replacement shirt once worn by an older brother who lacked style sense.

Planned obsolescence — defined as deliberately designing a product that becomes unfashionable or non-functional within a certain time frame — obviously stimulates demand. The concept became evident my sophomore year, when I selected a purple and red shirt. My peers rejected the purple one as being ugly and an overly obvious attempt to grab attention.

I deliberately ripped it and pestered Mother for a replacement.The material cost the piggy bank's last measure.


Indications are that planned obsolescence is becoming obsolete. Average Joes, Josephines and their families seek sustainable, rooted things in an environment where change hits like a rock-hard snowball. Certain things — be it marriage, a freezer or a sewing machine — by nature should be built to last. A throw-away society is itself meant to be discarded.

It's good, said the person who taught me about planned obsolescence, that human beings can never be obsolete.We have the same needs and desires that our ancient ancestors had.

We may not always function as we should, but our ability to give love and be loved is never diminished.

Mychal Wilmes is managing editor of Agri News, a weekly agriculture newspaper published by the Post-Bulletin Co. His column appears every Monday.

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