The night light robbery: How LED bulb industry ensures that we keep buying

By Dr. Jaijit Bhattacharya

“A promise is a promise”. That was one of the famous statements of Ratan Tata when he launched the Tata Nano, after a few years of delay and cost overruns. The Tata Nano was launched at Rs 99,000, ex-showroom, to reflect the promise made several years ago that it would be a Rs 1 lakh car. In spite of inflation, and several price-related challenges, Ratan Tata stuck to his promise.

So, what does Ratan Tata’s promise have to do with the “nightlight” robbery? The problem is that LED light manufacturers had made a promise that their product will last anywhere between 30,000 hours to 50,000 hours. If an LED lightbulb is kept switched on for four hours a day, every day, then 30,000 hours of life roughly translates to over 20 years. This may come as a surprise to many now, as we have got habituated to changing our LED light bulbs in one to two years. After about a year, the LED light starts blinking and it forces us to replace the light bulb with another expensive LED light bulb.

The whole premise of switching from cheap filament light bulbs to extremely expensive LED ones was based on the calculations of power savings over the life of an LED bulb, which would make the lifetime cost of the LED bulb lower than the incandescent bulb. But if the promise of 20 years of the life of an LED bulb does not hold, then does the economics of an LED bulb itself hold? Why should people use LED light bulbs and not use conventional incandescent or fluorescent lights?

The bigger question mark is, does the LED bulb industry really want us to have light bulbs that literally last forever, which will then be a death knell for the industry? If we don’t have to replace our light bulbs, then we will not need to buy new LED bulbs, which means once we have bought all the lights that we need, the LED bulb industry will shrink drastically. Is it a conspiracy theory that the LED manufacturers are purposefully reducing the lifespan of their bulbs or is there any substance to such a possibility?

LED bulbs seem to be in grip of what appears to be a neo-Phoebus arrangement. (Photo: Getty)
The startling fact is that the lighting industry did actually collude in the past to curtail the life of incandescent light bulbs. And any industry player who did not follow the diktat of this cartel was punished. This cartel was referred to as the Pheobus Cartel, based on the name of the organization that they created – PhÅ“bus S.A.Compagnie Industrielle pour le Développement de l’‰clairage (French for “Phoebus plc Industrial Company for the Development of Lighting”). This was incorporated in Switzerland. The cartel included well-known manufacturers from US, Europe, and Japan, who operate to date.

The bizarre actions of the cartel were discovered by the historian Markus Krajewski. Besides controlling production and slicing out different geographies to players in order to limit competition, the lighting industry realized that with the advancement of technology, the bulbs were lasting several thousand hours. In fact, some bulbs from that era, are still functioning. So the cartel started pouring in resources to actually work on shortening the life of the bulbs and limiting them to 1,000 hours, in order to force people to continue buying the bulbs, an unethical practice that is now labeled as “planned obsolescence”.

In parallel, they put in an audit system that forced manufacturers to conform to the 1,000 hours of bulb life goal. Stringent penalties were imposed on manufacturers whose light bulbs lasted more than the prescribed hours. This ensured that the industry had the market, year after year, as consumers would line up to buy new bulbs after their old ones stopped working after roughly 1,000 hours.

The cartel’s system worked brilliantly. Within a decade of the cartel coming into existence, the lifespan of a bulb was brought down from an average of 2,500 hours to less than 1,200 hours. And even though the cartel stopped functioning by 1940, its impact has stayed till today. When you buy an incandescent light bulb today from the market, its life will be roughly around 1,200 hours, half of what it used to be in the 1930s. It also led to the creation of the strategy of planned obsolescence that infests our laptops, smartphones, and a host of other smart devices, where bloat wares are injected into our machines under the garb of “updated software”. And the moment a new model is launched, magically, some of the older models become slow and the battery life suddenly diminishes.

Light bulbs
Lighting industry did actually collude in the past to curtail the life of incandescent light bulbs. (Photo: Getty)
So that brings us back to the issue of LED light bulbs and their real-life being closer to 2,000 hours (roughly 2 years) and certainly not the promised 30,000 hours to 50,000 hours.

This penny-dropping moment came to me when, several years ago, I was helping the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) in putting their Smart City Plan together and executing the same. NDMC maintains the area where our President, Prime Minister, and most of our ministers and government officials live. As the procurement for smart LED lighting came up, the cost provided by all the vendors seemed high. As we all suspect vendors of providing higher costs, we called a meeting to check with them on their logic for higher costs. And what came out was revealing.

The vendors were keeping 20% extra LED light bulbs in inventory as their experience showed that the LED light bulbs fail within a year. With the stringent uptime conditions in the procurement documents, the vendors felt that they need to keep 20% extra LED bulbs in stock. This ran against all the promises of LED bulbs, which were supposed to survive almost forever.

So clearly, LED bulbs seem to be in the grip of what appears to be a neo-Phoebus arrangement of reducing the lifespan of a bulb.

On discussing the issue with those who manufacture the LED bulbs, the clarification that came out is that a packaged LED bulb had the LED lighting with a driver. The LED lighting has the promised 30,000 to 50,000 hours of life, but the driver does not. Now that seems to be a technicality that is solvable. If it is the driver that fails, then only the driver should be sold separately for replacement, and it should be possible to swap the drivers in the bulb. That would not only save costs but also the environment.

And that brings us back to Ratan Tata’s statement on a promise being a promise. When the LED bulb industry made the promise of the lifespan of an LED bulb, that promise needs to be kept. Whatever the technicalities are, they need to be solved. Else, it gives rise to the suspicion of the resurrection of a new Phoebus cartel.

Such a planned obsolescence strategy of manufacturers is neither good for the consumers, nor for the planet.

(The author is the president of Centre for Digital Economy Policy Research)

This article first appeared in India Today,