OR why globalisation and planned obsolescence are like a chicken and an egg
We have a clock on the wall in our kitchen, possibly you do too; it’s not such an unusual thing. What is perhaps unusual about ours is that the face is smashed, and has been so for six months. It still keeps time, with its graceful second hand sweeping past in one smooth motion, as if to wipe away the little shards of glass from numbers 10 and 2, (what I like to think of as its eyes). I accidentally knocked it off the wall and ever since it has glared at me, like a ballerina with a black eye, still able to dance but dismayed at the state of itself.
I don’t like having a broken clock, but I can’t bring myself to throw it away because it still works. The glass is just about holding in place, and though cracked, you can still see the time. It just doesn’t look very nice.
I have of course tried to fix it. I called a local framers and was told that new glass would cost almost double the original price of the clock. I emailed the manufacturer in Holland and had a cheery reply from a customer services rep who said that no they didn't supply replacement parts. I casually looked for a dirt cheap, identically-diametered clock whose glass I could rehome in mine, but could only find plastic, and couldn’t shake the feeling that this solution would just kick the can further down the road, with yet another clock inhabiting the planet with no front. I brooded, and put it back on the wall and low down on my to-do list. It’s been in both places ever since.
My clock is clearly not that interesting (and bravo for reading this far), but what is interesting perhaps is what it says about the way we live today, and the way we produce and consume our planet’s resources. We need to look at supply as well as demand, because it would be easy to stop simply at our own doors, and discuss how we have allowed ourselves to be conditioned by marketing to consume and discard our belongings in quick succession, as a proxy for living ‘better’. We’ll come to that, but first we have to go upstream of marketing, to the concept of planned obsolescence (so brilliantly explained in The Story of Stuff), in which manufacturers purposefully design our goods with short lifespans and repairs are charged at a similar price point to the cost of a replacement. It feels to me like planned obsolescence is intertwined like DNA with globalisation, which allows us to manufacture products many thousands of miles away from where they’re sold.
It leads me to ask, which came first, the globalisation chicken or the planned obsolescence egg? Do we have to discard things because we can’t ring up Asia for a spare part, or do we produce in Asia because we have systematically eliminated longevity?
Let’s go back to my childhood, and peer through the glass darkly into Ted Turner’s warren-like TV repair shop. Situated in a small shopping parade in a village, Ted’s shop was the antithesis of the big box retailer, and came from a time when the easy credit that those stores now offer was but a glint in the eye of the financial services sector. Ted was a man always to be found in a brown grocer’s coat, and the shop was stacked high with TVs, radios and other electronics. People joked that Ted didn’t just have what you wanted, but that he had it in multiple colours. For any parents of young children reading this, Ted was in many ways our own version of Mr Fox from Peppa Pig.
Ted fixed your TV or sold you a new one, and he did it all for a song, with a smile. People needed Ted Turner because TVs were expensive, and when yours broke, well, you fixed it. TVs were also the first ubiquitous piece of technology that the average householder couldn’t fix themselves. I can remember my dad lying on his back on the kitchen floor with the washing machine tipped precariously above him, but he would never have attempted to mend the telly. We didn’t know it then, but TVs were both a sign of technology to come, and that Ted Turner’s days were numbered.
Ted wouldn’t have been able to fix my clock (it wasn’t a TV), so let’s go back further to the days when manufacturing was closer to home. If you had a problem, the customer services team were likely on site with the factory and might be able to get hold of someone out back who could solve your problem. (I spoke to a shed manufacturer recently who boasted of just that). When I emailed Holland, even if the nice man in customer services had wanted to help, he would have been stumped as to where to start. He might know someone in accounts in Holland, but I doubt he knew their equivalent on the production line in China. Their factory will be a long way away, and he won’t have a phone number for it. And anyway, what on earth would be the budget code for a new piece of glass for some mad woman in Oxford? Why can’t she just buy another clock for goodness sake?
At this point I should say that this isn’t an anti-globalisation piece. I am a firm advocate of the enormous benefits that have come from globalisation, both in terms of trade as well as of movement of peoples and our significantly improved appreciation of different cultures. Rather this is simply to ask: why have we allowed ourselves to adopt the most simplistic version of globalisation; globalisation 1.0? You know, the one with the bugs they haven’t fixed yet? We’ve all become early adopters of something that only works if we chew up the planet in its service.
My clock isn’t priceless, but it doesn’t need to be to contain precious metals like copper, nickel and steel, aside from the fact that manpower, actual power and time were required to assemble it. We know that resources are finite, and yet they aren’t priced this way. The great work that Kate Raworth has done on circular economies and sustainable consumption makes it obvious that we need to value things for what they cost the planet, not our wallets. Yet while resources are finite, because the products they create are so cheap, we are lulled into quite literally a false economy, that suggest that while our finances feel limitless, so is industry’s (and the planet’s) ability to meet our consumption with replacements.
Which brings us to our role as consumers; the demand side. Let’s add into the mix this idea that we are ‘time poor’… We’d like to repair things, but really, who has time for that these days? It can feel like there’s a lot of truth in that, when you’re tearing around trying to get the kids the school and yourself to the office, and to remember auntie Joan’s birthday. But hang on, let’s all put our hands up to how much time we waste around here. In the relationship between price and time, we seem to have convinced ourselves that we don’t have time for make do and mend, even as we fritter hours flicking through our Twitter and Facebook feeds, ignoring the children we claim to be busy with? I’ve definitely caught myself adopting a high-minded approach to clutter, pushing the problem down the line to a charity shop because I’m ‘too busy to mess about with this’. Is our time really so valuable that we can’t spend a little of it repairing things? I would argue that it is rather that the intersection between the value that we place on our time and the cost of our possessions is now so low, that it feels natural for us to ditch it not fix it.
If ‘life is too short’ to fix a £20 iron, why is it not too short to fix a £11,000 car? Rather than feeling sheepish here, we should instead take real hope from the fact that we chuck the iron but fix the motor: it shows that we’re not beyond redemption. We can fix things when we really need to. More than hope, it gives us a potential lever to change our behaviour.
So how about we make everything really expensive then? Anyone up for an £11,000 iron? It’s got a great steam feature…
One of the wonderful things about modern life, as my parents are at pains to point out, is that goods are affordable now in ways that they weren’t in the past. When my parents were young, things were bought with large price tags with money that had been hard-saved. In the absence of credit, your inability to buy a washing machine or a fridge was an easy class segregator and a great way to keep women in the home. That all changed with the advent of reliable, high quality manufacture in the far east and ready access to finance for all but the worst risk. Now it’s possible to buy a washing machine for the same ticket price as in the 1970s, with inflation between then and now making that appliance an absolute steal in today’s market. Clearly there have been huge gains made by opening up the market to everyone through easier credit and lower prices. Clearly it is advantageous to dismantle the discriminatory effects of class and gender inequality in our society (in as much as we have). However, those gains made by easy credit and lower prices, were not matched by us valuing those objects for what they do for us, but rather the opposite. As Tom Gilovich and Shai Davidai found in their research into gratitude, we appreciate good fortune fleetingly (but gripe about bad for far longer). The more we have and the easier we come by it, the less we value it and the more inclined we are to replace it when something better comes along. This basic human tendency to value that which we’ve worked for, was seemingly forgotten in the rush to redesign global trade and consumption. And what’s more interesting perhaps is the way in which this has fundamentally changed our behaviour, so that now we will even junk expensive, designer items, not just the cheap stuff. Where were the behavioural psychologists and economists when we needed them? Still inventing their discipline apparently.
So it is clear that we shouldn’t start outpricing the majority of the population from the ability to buy useful things. Instead then, is our golden lever for behaviour change more nuanced? Is it time that we reappraised the way in which we value our time? What if time wasn’t linked to our money? What if time was linked to the resources that went into the product? What would it be like to ask yourself ‘this thing I’m about to throw away took X, Y, Z people and materials to create’? Would that make us think just momentarily about another use for it, or about repairing it?
Here’s where the supply side has to step in once more. We do actually want to repair things. We feel bad for junking stuff, but we haven’t got an alternative solution that is as convenient and cheap. My broken clock presented me with three unhelpful choices: 1) fix it at a price greater than it originally cost, 2) throw it away, or 3) keep it even though it is damaged. We need supply of fixers to match the demand, because without that supply, the demand goes elsewhere, and just buys new. Everyone, including manufacturers it seems, have bought the lie that it is too hard to fix things. Why? Is it that hard for manufacturers to have national repair hubs that charge reasonable fees? Quite simply, where have all the good Teds gone?
I would like to hope that the worm is turning on this. Contrary to the data on environmental protection and recessions more widely, I suspect that tight financial times are good for this one aspect of sustainability, because we just don’t have as much cash to fritter. Equally, as people become more aware of the price to the planet of so much waste, in a macro sense, so their wallets are hit by the cost of misuse of resources in the micro. Whether it is Hugh Fearnley-Wittenstall’s War on Waste, or David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, we are hard-pushed now to pretend we don’t know the size of the problem to which we are contributing. As council recycling sites begin instituting charges and limits to incentivise citizens to waste less, shops charge for plastic bags and a coffee cup charge is mooted, perhaps reflecting on the real cost of consumption will also make us change our ways.
We can’t do it alone. As individuals, our arms are not big enough to reach around the whole system. Manufacturers and retailers have to step up. What would it be like for big business to institutionalise repairing the very products that they are responsible for creating? Wouldn’t it be a coup against their competitors if Currys announced free repairs up to a certain value on all their products? Wouldn’t that also mean higher trained staff who stuck around longer (the holy grail in retail)? Doesn’t that sound like a win-win?
I have a dream. I dream of an army of Ted Turners, fixing our stuff so we don’t have to throw it away before its time is truly up. Who’s going to make my dream come true?