The Phoebus cartel: Lighting the way for planned obsolescence

Planned obsolescence is an annoyance to many consumers. The conventional wisdom, that consumer goods were once produced using material that would ensure longer-lasting durability than those today, is based upon solid evidence. What many may not know, however, is that the plethora of cheaper, less durable items lining the shelves of today’s stores is the culmination of several generations.

Among the earliest, and perhaps most notorious, manifestations of planned obsolescence was the emergence of the Phoebus cartel. The Phoebus cartel, founded on January 15, 1925, was a consortium of the world’s largest lightbulb manufacturers, such as General Electric in the United States. The cartel’s chief contribution to the annals of planned obsolescence was its role in shortening the lifespan of incandescent lightbulbs. Prior to the cartel’s creation, the typical lifespan for an incandescent lightbulb was 2,500 hours. Following agreements among the world’s large lightbulb manufacturers, this lifespan was reduced to 1,000 hours. This reduced longevity was coupled with an increase in lightbulb prices across the globe. It is worth noting that manufacturers justified these changes by citing increased energy efficiency and brighter bulbs. The changes, therefore, may have been justifiable.

The Centennial lightbulb exists as a relic of the the pre-Phoebus incandescent lightbulb. It has been burning on a near-continuous basis since 1901. While the Centennial lightbulb’s emitted light is now dim, critics of planned obsolescence see its continued use as a testament to the quality of consumer goods unblemished by the advent of planned obsolescence.