Sustainability and Built-In Obsolescence

LED modules, like these from CREE, may offer an alternative to obsolescence
A lighting sales rep gave recently visited my office to demonstrate his new line of LED light fixtures. The product has outstanding performance in most of the ways I expect from a commercial-grade luminaire: uniform and controlled light distribution, good color balance, an attractive housing, and the amazingly high efficacy (illumination/power) of the latest breed of LED.

Then I asked the rep where I could get replacement LEDs when the current ones fail.  He hemmed and hawed and then admitted the manufacturer did not have a program to sell replacement lamps or electronic drivers. "But that doesn't matter," he said, because the components are warrantied for five years, and by then there will be better technology and you would just replace the entire fixture.

While the company's literature touts how much energy its fixtures would save compared to fixtures with older and less efficient light sources. Yet the literature is silent on the environmental costs of replacing the housing and other components that could, feasibly, last for decades.  Making the matter worse, the housing was not designed for ease of relamping, further reinforcing the throw-away mindset.

I learned about lamp obsolesce the hard way.  Years ago, at a yard sale, I found some funky looking, gently used, industrial grade fluorescent light fixtures for what I thought was a bargain price -- perfect for the dark basement I was fixing up.

It turned out that the units required a size and style of fluorescent tube that had gone out of production. Sure, replacement lamps were still available, but they cost more than replacing the entire fixture with newer models.
Hubbell Roadway RF LED Retrofit Kit
Some lighting manufacturers are trying to address this type of problem. Some, for example, make LED elements that can be used to retrofit their older products. Looking forward, other companies are developing LED modules that can be used interchangeably in a variety of luminaires. As LED technology improves, the company can offer upgraded modules that do not require entire fixtures to be replaced.

I believe innovative solutions like these provide a better value to buyers, reinforce the manufacturers' green branding, and create a platform that can carry the manufacturers further into the future than they would get with throw-away products.

The marketing take-away from this is that manufacturers claiming to offer green products must look at the entire product life cycle, and offer a strategy to minimize the impact of improved technology.  As a species, we can no longer accept the culture of planned obsolescence.