The EU’s ‘right to repair’ plans will mean people can eke out a longer life for our white goods. The planet will thank us
‘This speeded-up cycle of stuff breaking down and having to be replaced isn’t just expensive but also environmentally unsustainable.’ Household rubbish awaiting collection.
Nothing lasts for ever. Things do fall apart and can’t be mended; there are only so many times a juddering old boiler can be coaxed back from the brink, and only so many loads of muddy PE kit a washing machine can take.
But if you’ve ever had a sense that things are falling apart faster than they used to, invariably just after the warranty runs out, then you may have a point. A 2015 study showed that between 2004 and 2012, the proportion of household appliances in Bromley that died within five years of purchase had doubled. This speeded-up cycle of stuff breaking down, being chucked away and having to be replaced isn’t just expensive, it’s environmentally unsustainable too, as every new appliance carries a hidden price tag thanks to the climate change gases released during the making of it.
Hence the proposals discussed by EU member states this week on strengthening what’s been called the “right to repair”, or consumers’ freedom to patch and mend and eke something perfectly serviceable out for a bit longer. (Yes, it is ironic that one of the last things we’ll hear from Brussels as a member state is about how things are falling apart, when they could be fixed back together. No, they’re probably not trolling us deliberately).
The suspicion, fairly or unfairly, is that we’re all being taken for a ride here. Fashion retailers keep their customers coming back by convincing us that whatever was hot six months ago is suddenly not to be seen dead in, and the tech industry at least comes up with new gadgets to covet. But white goods? Everyone who can afford a fridge pretty much already has one, they don’t really go out of style, and there’s only so much cutting-edge technology it’s possible to bring to what is essentially a big, cold cupboard. The most obvious way to keep selling fridges is for fridges to keep wearing out.
This is fertile territory for urban myths about wicked manufacturers deliberately programming things to go bang. Radio phone-ins this week have been full of them, including the caller who was insistent that after the war, factories began secretly inserting something into domestic appliances in Bromley to make them fail as a job creation scheme for returning soldiers. (Thoug
h that one may have its roots in the infamous lightbulb conspiracy, or the way German, US and British companies were caught colluding to reduce the lifespan of lightbulbs in the 1920s so that we’d all have to buy more of them).
But in truth, much of what is darkly referred to as “planned obsolescence” probably isn’t anything of the sort. Sometimes it’s just a side-effect of cut-throat consumer price wars, and the pressure to build things as cheaply as possible, which means cutting corners on durability. And sometimes it’s more to do with technology’s restless habit of overtaking itself.
Lately, regulators have been casting a rather more sceptical eye over this, with French prosecutors probing Apple’s admission last year that older iPhones were deliberately designed to slow down when new software updates came along. But maddening as it is for people who only really use their smartphones to text and check their emails, the market is driven by those forever hankering after a slightly improved version. The unwritten assumption is that there’s no point making them to last a lifetime.
Can we fix it? The repair cafes waging war on throwaway culture
There’s no reason the unglamorous workhorses of our domestic lives should follow suit, however, and that’s where the new EU proposals are squarely aimed; not at cutting-edge tech but washing machines and TVs and things that are becoming curiously harder to fix. The manufacturers’ argument for warranties being automatically invalidated if you have a go at mending something yourself is that technology has moved on, that there’s no place any more for amateur tinkering. But tell that to generations of engineers who started out by taking things apart in the kitchen as kids, spreading bits all over the floor. And how on earth did we fall into the trap of lights where the bulb is sealed in, so that when it goes you have to replace the whole unit?
Make do and mend can sound a horribly old-fashioned concept, redolent of blitz spirit and keeping bits of string in drawers in case they come in handy. And it’s true that in a consumer economy, jobs depend on the constant churn of material things. But there is something very timely about the right to repair, blending the thrifty satisfaction of fixing stuff with green ideals of reusing and recycling. The vast buildups of single-use plastic – drinking straws and plastic bags, drinks stirrers and cotton buds – have shown how destructive disposability can be. It feels morally wrong to keep wasting things on such an epic and self-destructive scale, when we know how very far one man’s trash is from being another man’s treasure.
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