Why can’t we fix things?

I was reading an article in G2 a while ago that talked about the issues encountered with consumer durables and getting them mended. Essentially the attitude in the present day and age is tipped severely towards replacement rather than repair.

Customers who find their consumer durables broken outside of a warranty period usually discover one of two things

  1. Parts are not in any way available to repair the item
  2. Parts are available but work out more expensive than the item itself

Personally I find this astounding. We live in a society where concerns about the impact we have on the environment are on the rise, where costs of disposal are increasing and where places where there remains room to landfill are on the decline. Surely if we hope to address these issues in the home then we need to repair and not replace. Of course its never as simple as all that. These days its all about responsibility and who takes it.

My feeling is that there is a tug of war as to who should foot the bill. No ordinary consumer will choose to pay more to repair an existing product than they would to purchase a new one but at the same time, no company will increase the costs of their products to pay for cheaper spares if it means potentially turning new customers away through high prices. Clearly though this state of limbo is not one we can remain in forever.

What is really needed here is some re-engineering of the whole way in which goods are made and sold. At present, a product is envisaged which requires certain components. Contracts are then put out to tender to companies who might be able to deliver the required components at optimal cost. This creates a problem in that once the contract has been fulfilled, the third party companies will stop making their components and accept contracts from companies making different products. This causes the products that leave the production line to have literally no sources of spares. You could argue that this doesn’t happen straight away, but it is certain that it happens reasonably quickly, definitely during the life of the product at any rate.

The first possible route to dealing with this problem is to force big manufacturers to produce their own components if they are specific to the product being made (some outsourcing would be fine – you can’t ever imagine ever needing to stop the production of 10k resistors just because one product that uses them stops being made for example). This would cause the company to take advantage of economies of scale and make far more parts than were needed (not doing so would be to waste the cost of factory setup). The result of this is perhaps slightly more expensive products but with a stock-pile of spares which can then be sold on cheaply (taking advantage of the original economies of scale used to produce them) to customers who suffer breakdowns in the future. Call it a product life insurance policy if you like.

The second possible route to solving the problem (which is arguably simpler but likely more expensive to all concerned) is to pass the costs (both financial and environmental) of end of life disposal onto the consumer. At the moment we can just take items to the dump for practically nothing. If this cost was increased then suddenly the cost of the spare parts would seem more appealing – cheaper than the cost of disposal plus the new product. This would encourage consumers to seek out spares and in so doing encourage traders to step into the market to cater for the demand.

Personally I wouldn’t be too fussed with which option was employed – I see both as having the potential to work – but we simply cannot continue to throw things away only to replace with the same item because repair is seen as a non-option. Our planet has limited resources. If, in the future, we wish to continue to take advantage of these resources for human progress we must take a little more care with how we use them today.

 

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