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Gear Guy

Do Gear Manufacturers Rely on Planned Obsolescence?

I imagine that such a practice would be dangerous...

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A question, as I contemplate buying gear for leading. I know that most manufacturers rely on planned obsolescence for continued sales. Is this a strategy used by climbing-gear makers? I imagine that such a practice would be dangerous. If these companies don’t employ this strategy, how do they make money?

—Dan Zangmeister, Charlotte, NC

Planned obsolescence is indeed why children’s toys have wimpy plastic gears and you have to take your car to The Dealer every friggin day to have the “check
engine” light switched off. But everyone does it, even the Almighty: Viagra and Rogaine are all I have to say about that.

Planned obsolescence is, notes The Lightbulb Conspiracy, the “secret mechanism at the heart of our consumer society,” and typically occurs in an oligopoly,
such as we have with climbing gear. “Shortening the replacement cycle” would be a profitable strategy if it weren’t for gravity and the high cost of
product-liability insurance. Forgetting those nuisances for a moment and assuming that climbing gear is made to need frequent replacing, something
has gone terribly wrong—I’m still plugging cams from the 1970s, and I could use (if I wanted) my carabiners and nuts from the same era.

The key to the above is “if I wanted.” Yes, planned obsolescence is alive and well in the climbing world, but like Mephistopheles it has an infernal name.
You will know it as dynamic obsolescence, or the obsolescence of desirability—I could climb on that old rack, but I don’t want to because it
would be heavier and wouldn’t work as well as today’s new gear. In the words of the industrial designer Brooks Stevens, I have “the desire to own something
a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”

Dynamic obsolescence explains more than why Donald Trump left Ivana for Marla, it is what drives the invention of lighter and stronger ropes, more ergonomic
ice tools, stickier and better-fitting shoes, and more stylish helmets. Whether manufacturing and selling climbing gear is profitable is beyond the
powers of my crystal skull. If I were a manufacturer and money was a concern I’d become an “artist” and engage in the digital version of standing by
the roadside with a squeegee, BO and a “Haven’t Eaten in Three Days” sign—I’d launch a Kickstarter campaign. Gear Guy has spoken!

This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 227 (July 2015).