How LEDs are Solving the “Great Lightbulb Conspiracy”


Have you ever heard of “The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy”? It isn’t quite as popular as other conspiracies like the moon landing, or 8-foot-tall shadow people at the Miami mall, which is honestly pretty unfortunate. I feel like with recent distrust in governments and corporations, more people would be jumping on the wagon over something like this.  

Essentially, the Great Lightbulb Conspiracy is a study that was done in 2019 to prove that large corporations were hardwiring planned failures into their products, causing them to stop working or malfunction sooner than they should. This planned failure, or planned obsolescence was integrated so that consumers would purchase more of the same product sooner than they would actually need to.  

 Table of contents

  1.  The History of Planned Obsolescence 
  2. How Did the Cartel Achieve This?
  3. What Happened to The Phoebus Cartel?
  4. The Continuance of Planned Obsolescence
  5. How Do We Stop This?
  6. LEDs and Their Impact

The History of Planned Obsolescence  

The oldest surviving incandescent light, known as the Centennial Bulb, is a dim carbon-filament bulb that’s been burning nearly continuously since 1901 — over 1 million hours. That’s 114 years! So, what happened that made lightbulbs last only a few short months? 

Something that a lot of people don’t know is that back in the 1930’s, there was a cartel in charge of the manufacture and sale of incandescent light bulbs in much of Europe and North America. They were known as the Phoebus Cartel and they essentially created the concept of planned obsolescence. This cartel took massive control over the lighting industry and jacked up the prices of the traditional incandescent lightbulb. At the same time, they slashed the life expectancy of those bulbs from 2,500 hours to just 1,000 hours, which pretty much tripled their profits.  

It was an unsavory practice that many ridiculed for forcing consumers to shell out more money for less of a product. And while it eventually came to an end after the cartel disbanded in the 1940’s, many people believed that more companies actually began adopting the practice of planned obsolescence. 



How Did the Cartel Achieve This? 

It wasn’t just a matter of churning out sloppy and poorly made products— I could have done that. Phoebus Cartel needed to be sneaky, so that they wouldn’t raise any red flags. Creating a bulb that failed after an agreed-upon 1,000 hours took a lot of effort. The cartel took its business of shortening the lifetime of bulbs every bit as seriously as earlier researchers had approached their job of lengthening it. All that work flushed down the metaphorical toilet. 

These efforts took place over the course of a decade. The average life expectancy of a standard lightbulb produced in dozens of Phoebus members’ factories dropped from 1,800 hours to just 1,205 hours. At that point, no factory was producing bulbs lasting more than 1,500 hours. That means that these lightbulbs would fail within just three months! I’ve had spiders in my bathroom for longer than that.


What Happened to The Phoebus Cartel? 

It took about twenty years before anyone was able to do anything to stop this practice, simply because the cartel had a hold on global lightbulb manufacturing—it wasn’t like they simply owned a small portion of it. The Phoebus Cartel dominated the market, and even owned some of the biggest names in the lighting industry, including General Electric.  

In 1950, after the fallout of WWII, the US District court found General Electric to be in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which was a law against the artificial raising of prices by restriction of trade or supply.  

While the cartel went to great lengths to dispute this, the courts nonetheless found that, because of General Electric's dominant industry position and lack of competition, it had the power to determine bulb lifespan across the entire industry. They also determined that General Electric's main consideration in setting the lifespans of bulbs was profit, which was a direct violation of the act. In turn, GE parted ways with the cartel, which led to its eventual dispersion.  

A few years later, Thomas Pynchon wrote in his novel about "Byron the Bulb", an anthropomorphic eternal lightbulb who fights against the Phoebus Cartel. This sounds like a cute kid's story but trust me when I say that the details aren’t a suitable bedtime story for the little ones. 





The Continuance of Planned Obsolescence 

If you’ve got an iPhone or any sort of Apple product, odds are you've had more run-ins with planned obsolescence than you think. In fact, within the last five years, Apple has come under fire for malpractice because of their monopoly over smart devices and the ways in which they operate.  

All of Apple’s devices can share information with other products in their arsenal. The idea is that consumers benefit from access to information on one product that was first input on a different product and so on and so forth. Courts found however that this can also be to the detriment of consumers because information can only be transferred between products in their ecosystem. 

This tactic makes it difficult for consumers to switch technology brands and for competitors to enter the market. It also has made it incredibly easy to install timers on Apple products, which purposely shorten their lifespan and cause the device to malfunction prior to their true life expectancy.  


Planned obsolescence doesn’t have to exist on such a massive scale for it to be an issue. It can be as simple as selling products with irreplaceable batteries so that consumers are required to buy a new one when the first fails, or the inability to refill an ink cartridge in a printer for the same reason.  

Another example of this in our society is the fast-fashion industry. There are a handful of brands in the clothing industry that promote constant reboots of seasonal collections to drive consumption. Cheap, poorly made clothes are great examples of planned obsolescence in day-to-day life. Conventional manufacturers constantly release new styles and design clothes to be trendy for a single season, and then they’re obsolete by the next season. 


How Do We Stop This?  

In the short term, the only thing we as consumers can really do to stop the overuse of planned obsolescence is to stay informed and educated on brands and corporations that participate in this practice. Unfortunately, it isn't always easy to know which of your favorite products are manufactured to fail until it’s too late, but just like every massive change, it starts with small steps. 

There are some companies and products, however, that are working to reverse the stigma and practice of planned obsolescence. One of the most notable is, funnily enough, the one that started it all—the lightbulb.  

As more consumers begin to phase out the incandescent bulb from their households, LEDs are taking the place of the most commonly used light bulb in the world. With this, we now have perhaps the first mass-consumer product of the twenty-first century to challenge planned obsolescence.  


LEDs and Their Impact 

Within the last ten years, as LEDs have risen in popularity, their life expectancy has been marketed as anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 hours. In most cases, this is shown to be fairly accurate. In fact, a study has shown that even in the LEDs that “fail” prior to their expiration date, only 10% of the failure comes from the LEDs themselves. Driver circuitry, on the other hand, was responsible for almost 60% of the LED failures. The remainder of failures were due to housing problems.  

Through the manufacturing and usage of LEDs, consumers are getting a taste of “built to last” products for the first time in the history of the lighting industry. 


  • Posted on by Dan
    I hate corporate greed 😞
  • Posted on by Julia
    Very interesting stuff!

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