We live in a disposable culture. Things are made to be used once, or for one season, or for a few years, and then thrown away. Or even worse, things are built to fail within a certain time period, because where is the profit for a company who builds something that lasts a lifetime? This company would do well for a few years and then gradually profits would decline, because once you buy a thing once, you don’t have to buy it again. What companies actually want is to sell you something that will last a few years, and then have you come back and buy another one a few years later when that one breaks down (as it was planned to do). That’s how they make money.
What is built to last these days? Not a lot, it seems.
We renovated our kitchen six years ago and enough time has passed that we are now at the point where the drawers are starting to stick, the cupboard doors are starting to sag, and the new appliances we bought are starting to develop issues. Our boiler developed a pressure issue which meant we had to replace a valve (expensive part + professional tradesperson time). Our dishwasher (we opted for a well-made German appliance) doesn’t close properly any more so we can’t use it and have returned to washing everything by hand and the unusable dishwasher has become an empty cupboard.
(My husband believes he can solve household issues by watching youtube videos. I put more trust in qualified tradespersons myself. So every day when I ask, “Did you call the dishwasher service people today?” he says, “I’m still looking at YouTube videos.” I should actually check the videos he’s watching have something to do with dishwasher repair and aren’t actually classic All-Black rugby games from the 1970s. )
What do you do when things break? Throw them out and replace them or fix them?
I’m a strong believer in repairing things, even though sometimes it makes no economical sense. Like some years ago when our washing machine broke down, we had it fixed – at a cost that was 70% of the price of buying a new one. When it broke again a few years after that, we just replaced it, and that felt bad to me. But does it make sense to spend more on repairs than the thing originally cost?
I used to have a handbag that was the perfect size. Big enough to fit important things in, but not so big I would be tempted to put my whole life in there and carry around a huge weight that would break my shoulder. It wasn’t an expensive bag; in fact I may have even bought it used from Ebay. But it was a great bag and the perfect size and I loved it. And then the strap broke.
The repair needed wasn’t difficult, it just needed a small square of leather to be stitched onto the bag, over the piece that broke, to hold the strap back in place. I took the bag to a couple of shoe repair places to get the repair done and they all said it wasn’t worth their time (or mine) to fix it. “It’s only a cheap bag,” one man said (how dare he!). “Just chuck it out and get a new one.” The issue wasn’t the price of the bag, or the price of the repair, it was the utility value of that bag to me, which was much higher than it actually cost to buy or would have cost to repair.
Is this just British throwaway culture? I’m sure if I were in Morocco or Jordan or India, I could find a leatherworker who would be happy to take my money to fix my bag. But I wasn’t in any of those places, and after holding onto my unusable and broken bag for a few months, I did what the man said, and threw it away.
I wasn’t raised to treat possessions with this kind of casualness. My father grew up in the Depression and always had a careful approach to looking after things. My mother raised a family of four on a single wage and was also careful with money. We had hand made clothes and clothes handed down from older cousins (something that I found mortifying in my teenage years).
But this meant I grew up knowing the value of things, and appreciating the need to care for things, something that stood me well when I first came to the UK and – instead of finding the streets were paved with gold, ha! – found myself trying to make ends meet on very little money. If you’ve only got two pairs of tights and no money to buy more (because, oh, maybe you need to pay rent and buy food, little things like that) and one develops a ladder, you will carefully stitch those tights to make them wearable again.
One of my biggest annoyances is still tights that shred and ladder on their first wear. (Cheap or expensive, it doesn’t seem to matter.) I will use nail polish to stop the ladders and stitch up holes in the toes to make them wearable again. This might make me seem tight or stingy but for me it’s getting value out of something I paid for. It’s also why I tend to wear thick opaque tights instead of lighter and lower denier (and more fragile) tights. Those thick tights are mostly indestructible and can last for years before eventually breaking down (and then being removed to the shed where I use them as soft ties for plants in the garden. You see – things can keep on being useful even for other purposes).
Cameras are another thing that break too easily. (What, I’m still using a camera? Don’t I know I can take pictures on my phone?) My lovely big camera (a treat to myself after a promotion a few years ago) stopped working after I dropped it. Admittedly it wasn’t the first or second or even third time I’d dropped it. I had dropped it several times over the years but this was the final drop that finally broke it. It was an expensive camera and still relatively new (four years old) so I took it to a camera repair shop to get a quote on fixing it. The cost of repairs were (like the washing machine) 70% of what the camera originally cost. This was a disheartening amount to be quoted, especially as I could put that amount towards a completely new camera.
What happened was this: the husband got excited about getting a new and more powerful camera and so we bought one. I felt guilty about having something “good” that could be repaired and – then what – just dumping it? So I secretly got the camera repaired and didn’t tell my husband. So now I have a working camera that lives in my desk at work that I can’t take home. Maybe I will have to start going for photography walks at lunchtime just so I use it and don’t feel I wasted the repair money.
But is it a waste? It was broken and now it’s fixed. It wasn’t added to the growing pile of e-waste that is cluttering up our world, and that’s a good thing. It may not be fixed with seams of gold, like in the art of Kintsugi, but it is working and functional.
So I favour repairing over replacing. There is enough waste generated in this world already. We should take care of the things we have.