Incandescent: The Phoebus Cartel


Shaun Keaveny marks the centenary of planned obsolescence by exploring the history of the Phoebus Cartel - a conspiracy theory that turned out to be true.

A century ago, businessmen from around the world gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, to form a shadowy international organisation called the Phoebus Cartel. Their purpose? To control the production and distribution of lightbulbs across the world - and also, it's alleged, to deliberately shorten their lifespans to make them burn out quicker in order to sell more.

It's a manufacturing tactic called planned obsolescence and it's claimed the Phoebus Cartel invented it. 

In this documentary, Shaun Keaveny goes in search of the mysterious Phoebus Cartel, a journey which takes him from the Industrial Midlands to Switzerland, a testing laboratory in Belgium, and the bizarre story of an immortal light bulb called Byron. Shaun investigates the rise of today's throwaway culture and looks at its enormous environmental impact, with millions of low-cost, poorly-made products ending up in landfill within a year of being bought. 

Is this a legacy of the Phoebus Cartel? Where does the conspiracy theory end and reality begin?

Shaun also hears from the repairers, the activists, the campaigners and the designers who are fighting back against today's culture of accelerating obsolescence.

Featuring contributions from: Chris Setz and the team at Haringey Fixers, Helen Peavitt (Science Museum), Catherine Shanahan (Rugby Art Museum), Markus Krajewski (University of Basel), James Hooker (Head of Laboratories for international lighting company), Scott Butler (Material Focus), Jack Holloway (Product Designer), Tim Cooper (Nottingham University), Kate Raworth (Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University)


Listen here.