I’m pretty sure that if I ask you, have you thrown away a household or kitchen appliance, small or large, that’s less than five years old, in the last two years, your answer would be yes. It won’t have worn out, but something, somewhere has broken. It’s just stopped working. You probably have no idea why. You won’t repair it either, despite the incredible amount of energy and raw material that have been used to make it. But that’s not your fault (and this is not an article about green issues, per se). Say it’s your microwave oven. When you can go down the road and get a new microwave oven for less than £40, where’s the incentive to repair? If you could find someone to repair it, you’d probably be paying out double that before they’ve even undone any screws.
The concept of a consumer product lasting 15 or 20 years and just generally wearing out, reaching the end of its serviceable life, is one that seems to belong to a bygone era.
Over the last few years, I’ve repaired a number of our household appliances. But I’m very practical, and I design and engineer consumer products for a living. I know how to get into them (I’ve got the specialist screwdrivers) and I’m good at working out what the problems are and knowing how to fix them.
Very few consumer goods are designed to have their life prolonged through repair. But they often haven’t been engineered to last, either. Even ‘quality’ products can betray us. Not so long ago I owned a nice, shiny, colourful 50s style fridge, from a popular and reputable brand. But after a few years the door seal failed. Being the resourceful and handy person that I am thought, simple, I’ll go online, find a new seal and fit it myself. But no. In their wisdom and apparent contempt for green issues, they had decided to design the seals so that the only way of replacing them was to buy a whole new door at an astronomical price. Repair was categorically denied, even by the back door.
It is interesting how we used to consider cheap Chinese goods a scourge. But it’s now what we demand. And we’ve become so obsessed with the ‘new’ that disposal doesn’t bother us. In fact, the prospect of buying a new and shiny replacement probably excites us. Indeed, such consumerism is what keeps people like me, and a great deal of others in advertising, branding, marketing, retail and manufacturing in business.
Price drive is one problem. Feature drive is another. In an article in the American magazine Consumer Reports in August 2011 (the US equivalent of Which? here in the UK) the percentage of three to four year old fridges that needed repair jumps from 15% to 28% for those with in-built ice makers. The more features we demand, the thinner our money is spread and the more there is to go wrong. The features may sound good to us when we’re making the purchasing decision, but by and large we will never use those added features that promise so much. Turning a fridge into a gadget is bound to mean its core function or durability is compromised.
But there was a time when household electrical items were simple, solid, and capable of being serviced, to a certain level, by the consumer themselves; and they were built to last. For example, I remember my grandparents’ upright vacuum cleaner, with the little door on the front to allow you to replace the drive belt in less than a minute. But it’s not just our household goods that have changed. We, ourselves have also changed. Our insatiable appetite for time and labour saving devices has left us impotent. Growing up, we are no longer taught a basic set of practical skills that would have been considered essential to daily life by our grandparents. Many of you will own a bicycle, but when it comes to carrying out the relatively straightforward task of mending a puncture, we’re more likely to reach for our smart phone and Google for local bike shops than attempt the task ourselves. We are losing even the most basic skills of maintenance, and with it the thrill and satisfaction we get from fixing things and doing something practical with our hands.
We’ve also forgotten what attachment means. We place less and less emotional value on the objects we populate our lives with. We lose the concept of familiarity and come to expect constant change and upheaval. Our belongings are transient. We expect them to fail, so we don’t allow ourselves to get attached to them. I look down, as I’m writing this, at a nasty plastic computer keyboard, which holds little more than junk status in my mind. The computer hardware that it’s connected to has only a slightly elevated status (yes, it’s a PC, not an Apple product, but I’m not going there right now). If I were writing this on a typewriter that I’d owned for 10 years, that I knew so well – all its little nuances – I can only imagine the bond I would have with it. And I want that bond. I miss that kind of bond. Don’t you?
Long-term ownership of products that contribute regularly to our lives in a positive way, builds bonds. But as a nation, have our world-renowned skills in marketing and advertising simply resulted in us becoming a shallow consumerist society that populates its environment with transient objects? We owe it to ourselves to reconnect with our craftsmanship roots. As industrial designers, maybe we can start by putting design for repair on the agenda.