How GM Invented Planned Obsolescence

It all started with a struggling auto company in the 20s.

A vintage photo of a 1920s car with a woman driver
Mrs. Winifred Woodbury at the wheel of a 1923 Cadillac.

Gostalgia Gosford Library / Flickr

It was the 1920s, and it looked like cars were a fad on the decline. Most Americans who were going to buy cars had already bought them; the auto industry just wasn't selling more.

So Alfred P. Sloan, the CEO of General Motors, and his colleagues came up with a radical new idea that would change not only the auto industry, but the entire economy: planned obsolescence. GM would simply convince customers that one car in a lifetime wasn't enough. They'd have to keep buying new models to stay fashionable.

What is Planned Obsolescence?

Planned obsolescence is the convention of producing consumer goods that aren't built for longevity. Rather, goods are designed to become obsolete through the practice of frequent design updates, ceasing the manufacture of spare parts, or the use of materials not designed to last.

"You need to get people to want more things," explained Gary Cross, a history professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies consumerism. Industry executives had to make people "think about a car not just as a car, a transportation machine, but as an expression of your personality or your status or your desire for something new."

Critics called this business plan "planned obsolescence." Sloan, on the other hand, insisted on calling it "dynamic obsolescence," which I guess he imagined was a super sneaky cover story (?).

"Sloan realized that they had to make people want things that they essentially didn't need," said Jamie Kitman, a bureau chief at Automobile magazine. "And that, along with the practice of consumer credit, which allowed people to buy things that they didn't need, was one of the big steps forward that just turbo-charged the industry for the next 75 years."

The strategy worked, and those who didn't follow in Sloan's footsteps got burned. Henry Ford, for instance, hated the idea of planning for his cars to become obsolete.

"Henry Ford, a lot of his notions would today be viewed as insanity by people in the business of selling cars," said Kitman. "I mean he really had one model, he thought it was good enough. For many years it was truly only available in black, and he kept lowering the price." By the end of the 20s, GM was bigger than Ford.

But planned obsolescence didn't just stay in the auto industry. It spread. People buy new iPhones every year and new clothes every season. They purchase lighters and pens every time they run out of lighter fluid and ink. In a way, single-use products are planned obsolescence on steroids. Plastic containers and silverware are essentially cutlery and boxes made to be thrown away.

All this stuff is the essence of unsustainability, creating waste and making people work all day making products that have such short lives, they barely benefit anyone. They're also a waste of precious resources: people build factories that turn oil into plastic forks, which workers recycle into lovely things like piles of trash the size of Texas, all to avoid a world with more leisure time and metal forks. Sometimes, it's hard to tell whether the economy is serving us, or we're serving it.