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Selling a Product that Lasts Forever
“The magic one.”
That’s what GE called its first light-emitting diode (LED) light bulb in the 1960s.
Since then, LED bulbs have been widely welcomed for their long-lasting power (up to 25 years) and energy efficiency. Some countries are even pushing to replace all halogen bulbs in favor of sustainable LEDs.
But they weren’t the first light bulbs built to last forever.
In fact, there’s a 120-year-old light bulb still casting a – now dim – glow in a fire station in Livermore, California.
The Centennial Light Bulb has been on almost continuously since 1901 and is the longest-burning in the world. The bulb is a traditional incandescent light – the kind that lasts maybe a year today.
What happened to lifespan of these bulbs?
Evolving Expiration Dates
In the 1920s, monopolies controlled the global light bulb market. As manufacturers developed longer-lasting bulbs, consumers started needing to buy less of them. With a problem illuminated, the leading companies secretly met in Switzerland and formed the Phoebus cartel – named after the Greek god of light.
Phoebus set the standard for an incandescent bulb’s lifespan to be only 1,000 hours –about 42 days of nonstop light. By diminishing the lifespan to boost sales, Phoebus became one of the first examples of planned obsolescence.
Today, planned obsolescence is rather common – anyone who’s had to replace their iPhone after two years has experienced it. Products are built to last only until their next version is brought to market. Even the rise of fast fashion plays into planned obsolescence.
While it may look deceiving, planned obsolescence actually reflects consumer culture of the modern world in which products with shorter lifecycles that can be replace often are valued. Technology moves fast, and consumers crave new products.
But long-lasting, durable products are gaining traction once again as waste and its effects on the environment shift to the forefront of consumers’ minds. Balancing new features and updates with sustainability requires regular reflection.