Post No.: 0673
It’s environmentally unfriendly to think that one must get new stuff when one’s existing stuff works fine; whether it’s phones, clothes, home improvements, cars, etc..
Too many people look for any miniscule excuse to buy new stuff when what they currently have could be simply cleaned, sewn up, touched up, repainted, redecorated, upcycled or otherwise repaired, reinforced or upgraded without buying a whole new replacement.
It’s partly because too much of people’s identities are tied to the products they own, and showing that one always has the latest/new stuff socially signals one’s perceived wealth and status. But we’ve got to be more concerned about the environment than ‘what our neighbours think’. Well what would get people to care more about the environment would be their peers thinking badly of them for getting new stuff that they didn’t seem to need. It’s like although there might still be plenty of fossil fuels left to extract – that’s beside the point because we need to cut our collective greenhouse gas emissions. So although we might personally have enough money to buy new stuff – that’s beside the point because we need to cut our collective limited resource usage and waste pollution.
Another reason is that most people don’t have an inkling about how most products are designed and made. They therefore mightn’t understand that something isn’t necessarily functionally compromised by a crack on the casing or some water ingress. They mightn’t understand that it’s just an internal fuse, rechargeable battery or bulb that can be easily replaced if only they opened the product up. Many toys can be easily fixed by reconnecting loose electrical connections, retightening joints or gluing parts together with the right kind of adhesive and method.
All complex products are ultimately assembled from more basic component parts when we tear them down. And most products won’t involve proprietary simple components like screws, nuts, component switches or LEDs, for example – they’ll use standard off-the-shelf parts wherever the manufacturers can to save costs, and therefore you can source them too if you need to replace them.
So we all need to be interested in learning about how products work, and in turn how to repair the things that can be repaired, rather than disposing them. Then we need to put in the effort to repair things or take them to someone who will. It’s a critical life skill, like being able to cook, I’d say. Like being able to assess if and how an ingredient can be made edible – one should be able to assess a damaged product and work out if and how it can be fixed. Everyone should learn how to solder and understand rudimentary electronics and materials science. There are sometimes online tutorials by those who’ve succeeded in fixing something too.
A better knowledge of how products work also gives us the confidence to know when it’s not worth paying for a more expensive product because a cheaper one would be functionally sufficient – you’re going to be less suggestible into thinking that a more expensive version really necessarily has more exotic components or materials; or even if it does, whether they’ll actually enhance the product’s function or if it’s just for show. And even if the manufacturing quality is lower, you’ll know how to file down burrs, cut off excess threads, and bolster or touch things up, for little effort and time compared to the savings (you can do these things whilst watching TV). Basically, you’ll know better when something is really worth the asking price or not. (I do admittedly have a product design background so know how to ‘add perceived value’ to products, and therefore know when such added value is indeed just ‘perceived’. It’s like it’s harder to trick a magician who already knows many of the tricks.)
Ordering a next-day delivery of a new item can be faster than booking a repair. But waiting a few days is such a ‘first-world problem’! And we’ve got to stop thinking that throwing money at problems is the default thing to do in the sense of buying new when existing things would still work if only they were repaired. People even throw things away when they don’t really need any fixing but just some cleaning and maintenance – like purchasing a new keyboard just because some coffee was spilled on it! It’s neither big nor clever to throw money at problems – we need the analytical, creative and practical intelligence to solve problems more resourcefully, which includes how to repair things. Woof!
And we should prioritise functionality over aesthetics in most cases i.e. if something still ultimately works then continue to use it. (Kintsugi – a Japanese philosophy – is about embracing the imperfect and treating breakages and repairs as part of the history of an object, instead of something to hide.) Even if one can financially afford a totally new replacement, the planet cannot afford it if we all keep living like this. So we should look for any miniscule reason to keep our possessions going for as long as possible. Treat it like a challenge – of ingenuity and resourcefulness!
…But it doesn’t help when most manufacturers of electronic goods and appliances make it as difficult as possible, if not sometimes impossible, for us to repair their products, and would prefer us to keep buying new stuff from them since this maximises their profits. They’ll often make it difficult to just open up their product exteriors (although you can usually buy the specialist tools to do so). A small price increase is worth it for doubling a product’s life by making it repairable from a consumer’s perspective, but if it’s more profitable for manufacturers to sell us something new than to repair it then they’d rather sell us something new.
Also, if a business finds it more ‘efficient’ in terms of it being more cost-effective to dump into landfill or incinerate for ‘energy recovery’ partly-defective or returned stock, compared to refurbishing them or donating them to charity or schools, then they’ll do so if they can get away with it. (Sometimes donating products, especially if the amount of stock is ginormous, will devalue the stock that’ll be sold at full price.)
Sometimes we do need new because an existing product isn’t that energy-efficient or secure to operate anymore, cannot support some latest features or is now too slow to run certain apps. But many of these newer features are just things you might use for a month as a novelty then never again, and a device sometimes only begins to run slow, or fails just after its warranty expires, because of intentional planned obsolescence – goods becoming unusable after a certain length of time with no method of repair.
Planned premature obsolescence benefits the manufacturers and retailers while it costs consumers and the environment. With a tablet, for instance, it starts to get slower at doing basically the exact same things that you were doing with it a couple of years ago i.e. you’re not asking it to do something greater yet gradually, after several operating system updates, it cannot do what it used to be perfectly fine at doing before. Even just navigating the OS interface becomes sluggish – so that you’re forced to buy a later model. They’ll keep adding bloatware even onto older devices – but you must apply the software updates for the security updates. Regardless, those security updates will soon stop, which forces you to buy a later device – even though in some cases they could technically continue with adding patches for older devices for longer.
Even when it comes to thinking that a newer model of appliance has been built more sustainably and thus will be better than keeping one’s existing model – although it depends on if the running costs are lower and consumables are more sustainable with the newer model – in virtually all cases, it’s better to try to repair one’s existing model because junking it would add to the electronic waste pile, plus new products still require new materials and energy to make and deliver.
Another trick is that – despite the technology for certain features existing at the time hence they could’ve been implemented at relatively little extra cost from the start – manufacturers usually try to spread out the release of new features on their products over separate models in order to give the impression that’s there’s ‘constant innovation’ with progressively newer versions. Consequently, some customers will think this justifies continuously buying each new latest version to get those added features each time. This prolongs the sales of that product line. An example is not putting an operating-time-remaining power meter on a cordless vacuum cleaner from the very start but waiting until version 11 to do so. Meanwhile, normalising the practice of repairing goods would incentivise innovation because designers would then have to be truly innovative to get us to buy new.
A few countries, like the UK, now have a form of ‘right to repair’ legislation that means that manufacturers must make spare parts available to consumers and third-party businesses for electrical appliances like TVs, washing machines and fridges. We want the tools, diagnostic information, spare parts and instructions (at a fair price) to be able to repair their products. Software and firmware providers must also provide security updates for internet-connected products for at least several years. It’s about giving the consumer the choice to repair and keep rather than replace what they’ve got.
Many argue that they currently don’t go far enough (some appliances should be able to last for even longer than 10 years), they don’t cover enough product categories, and they don’t guarantee affordable spare parts and repair services. It’s early days so these kinds of laws may refine over time.
Meanwhile, quelle surprise, some manufacturers are lobbying against these laws – citing physical safety concerns, software security risks and worries that it’d compromise their intellectual property rights; when it could be that it’s simply in their self-interests for consumers to buy new stuff from them as often as possible, or they at least want a monopoly for selling the repairs themselves.
Well we’re mainly looking to be able to repair or replace modular parts like batteries and broken screens, which don’t, or shouldn’t, require hacking deep into systems – similar to how car tyres, brakes, windscreen wipers, windscreens, batteries and body panels can be repaired or replaced. If products are designed from the outset to be easily repairable like that then they’ll not pose those claimed problems. If people can safely plug appliances into lethal mains electricity lines – they can safely plug modular electronic components together unless they’ve been badly designed (deliberately). It’s also again like learning to cook. We don’t say, “Don’t ever get into cooking because you might get food poisoning” – but say, “Build your knowledge and experience with cooking and you’ll be fine.” Maybe form factor sizes, and the initial prices of goods, will increase slightly, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.
I hope that repairing products, and modular technologies with easily upgradeable parts, become the norm rather than a niche. Bicycles are examples of products that are brilliantly modular so that broken/worn parts can be easily spotted and fixed, replaced, or even upgraded, rather than needing to scrap the whole bicycle, and it’ll be as good as new. (This does make bike parts easier to steal though even when you’ve chained the frame up. But this kind of theft isn’t a problem for most other goods.)
Consumers need to take care of their possessions better too so that they get broken less in the first place (like employing mechanical sympathy). Stuff has ultimately got to last longer. However, pure jewellery can potentially last forever but is functionally useless in my furry eyes – so we more importantly need to have functional products that are worth keeping and treasuring for as long as possible, like furniture, clothes, electronic devices and appliances.