Make do and mend is a motto for our times

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Gaby Hinsliff,

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 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 to make them fail as a job cre­ation scheme for re­turn­ing sol­diers.

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.

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 old­fash­ioned 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 self­de­struc­tive scale, when we know how very far one man’s trash is from be­ing an­other man’s trea­sure.

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