Why don’t we repair anything anymore?

shed under construction_optWhy don’t we repair anything anymore?  This is the question that the Guardian asked recently and which met with an enormous response.  And its a good question.  When I was younger it was common to have a variety of products repaired.  Now its difficult if not impossible.

As we wrote in “No oil in the lamp”;

This is counter-cultural since we live in a throw-away culture. When the authors were young this was common and a whole network of businesses existed to facilitate
repair of just about anything. Now it is much more difficult. Nevertheless it’s still possible to get shoes and clothes repaired. Neil had a zip fail on his cagoule. This has years of life left in it so he paid a local clothes repair shop to replace the zip – it was far
cheaper than getting a new coat. Andy has rescued furniture that was being thrown out and used it to make kitchen tables. While it’s far more difficult to get stuff repaired, replacing consumer goods or parts of consumer goods has been made far easier by the internet. So when the Hollow family needed a replacement foot pedal for an
old Singer sewing machine, we bought one off the internet. When a second-hand laptop keyboard had some letters fail Neil bought a new keyboard (having first ascertained that replacing the keyboard was really easy to do yourself ). This was far cheaper than replacing the laptop. There are lots of websites, such as Freecycle or Gumtree,
where you can pick up things for free.

My main failures have been with our car and electronics due to my lack of knowledge in these areas.  These are related the main problem is cars have so much electronics in that they are now beyond repair by most people now.  I remember my grandfather servicing his car- at least some of the time.  He also made his own furniture – something that is definitely beyond me.  Apart from those in the passage above my main successes have been with power tools – replacing worn out parts and cycles.  I also built a shed extension to store wood fuel and put a PV system on- although that is not a repair.

Why have we got into this position?  First, with the rise of China in the late 90’s goods became cheap as offshoring took place.  Second, this coincided with relatively cheap energy which was necessary for the long supply lines.  Lastly obsolescence  is built in to most products.  After all the economy is built on the idea of endless growth (even in North Korea).  From 2000 this started to change.  The oil price leapt up.  Wages in China are no longer as cheap as they used to be.  Offshoring is now starting to go into reverse.  However,  the price of material goods is still too cheap to be worth repairing in most cases, unless you are prepared to have a go at it yourself.  It will take peak oil and the scarcity that will bring to make us repair stuff.  Hopefully then reuse will be designed in.

This post is part of the occasional series on alternative economics.

Neil

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