Oliver Herwig • 07.03.2019
In the midst of the disposable society, repair work is suddenly back in vogue. This is easy on the wallet and the environment. In praise of the trades.
It is certainly strange. It is often cheaper to buy new than to repair. This applies to household appliances as well as to fashion. Some T-shirts fly from the bargain bin to the skin, and in the evening directly into the garbage bin, because no one wants to wash – and a pack of ten is incredibly cheap. And repairs are so horribly expensive. Ostensibly, there are one billion mobile phones lost in drawers in the US only, “Spiegel” reported as early as 2010. Only a few are actually dysfunctional, most just went out of fashion. Whoever wants to repair anything today will get the shock of one’s life. Cases may only be opened with special tools, memory chips are welded to the motherboard and even auto motors are now sealed. Yet, things continue to break in the same place. Very small defects ensure that expensive machines are discarded. If you do not know anyone with a little skill, you may have to buy the same piece over again. Obsolescence is what experts call such predetermined breaking points. These continue to generate repeat business. But can we still afford that, whether socially or ecologically?
Disposability is a new thing in history. Making repairs was a normal thing in the past. Anyone could do something to get it up and running again: The bicycle tyres one quickly patched oneself, the trousers were mended by a aunt with new patches on the knee, and if one or another tool were lacking in the workshop, there was always a cousin, or neighbour, or friend of a friend, who surely had it. When a brand device broke down, it did not end up in the bin or at the recycling centre, but received a second life. Radios and washing machine were repaired, sanded down and repainted. Items were just too precious to not continue to use. A proper secondary industry repaired just about everything that was found in house or garden.
Sounds nostalgic or even romanticised. Repairing has always been a virtue of defects – not of abundance. Even day, one can find brilliant improvisational artists in Africa who mend things and keep them running for as long as possible. The German Democratic Republic actually had multi-function collection points, where household appliances were repaired, clothes cleaned and shoes repaired. A Rostock native recalls: “These collection points were in almost every city neighbourhood. There, any household appliances that broke down – from an umbrella to a vacuum cleaner – was repaired. And after four weeks, one received the item back from the repair shop.” Not a bit of romance either. Patching has long been a necessity that was not tied to any specific social system. This was because our forbears had neither enough money nor resources to immediately replace broken with new goods. Items were cherished, maintained, serviced and repaired. Holes were patched, cracks filled, stockings darned, pants mended, sheet metal smoothed out and wires soldered.
The message is clear. Stop, only specialists with special tools may enter. Then, as a matter of course, items turn into black boxes.
Smart investment in trades
Meanwhile, developmental psychologists state the importance of disassembling, maintaining and reassembling things. Motto: Trades make you smart. Children easily understand more, they look behind things, grasps correlations and gain an impression of how (analogue) technology works. Moreover, they lose false respect for things that shape our lives.
Anyone who has ever unscrewed a PC in order to change a graphics card or upgrade RAM, and finds nothing but a chaos of wires and cables between the motherboard and the hard drive, loses his belief in unerring, much less precise calculations of the computer. Then, one would no longer be at the mercy of any devices, which would become useful (and manageable) tools that we can change, adjust or, if necessary, turn off before they do any harm. There are yet many screwdrivers. But the digital world functions according to its own rules. Updates are uploaded and functions activated, while, for example, the casings of the Apple World are enclosed and sealed off. The message is clear. Stop, only specialists with special tools may enter. Then, as a matter of course, items turn into black boxes. We can operate them, but no longer understand what actually happens behind the user interface. That is a win for the sake of convenience, indeed; but, on a larger scale it might just be a Pyrrhic victory.
In the world of new good, there is a single exception. The auto may quietly go to the garage. According to statistics, the “Yellow angels” are dispatched every eight seconds. The mobile garages of the ADAC (German Automobile Association) check electronics, repair defective blinkers, and repair and disassemble within them. Sometimes they even perform oil changes – and it’s not even all that rare they will give stranded drivers a good draught of petrol, because they forgot about refuelling. They accumulate all types of data from their deployments. The ADAC breakdown statistics are therefore something like a reverse beauty contest of the industry. They show which brands often stay unused and which parts fail most frequently. There is something a little surprising: As a vehicle ages, its risk of breakdown increases. While the breakdown probability for a three-year-old auto is just 1.7 percent, after 13 years it rises to 7.1 percent. It is only beyond the age of youngsters (20 years) that the number of breakdowns once again drops, “because the old poppets are better looked after and driven less”. For comparison: Autos (in Germany) average nine and a half years old, and are become more and more expensive to maintain: In 1990 the service costs were around 165 euros, by 2017 it was already 275 euros (source: Statista). Naturally, it would be interesting to know whether the cars are younger on average, or simply that the repair costs have risen, or whether the many servomotors and complex electronics have driven up the costs.
It tends to be less repaired, and in other areas: instead of haberdashery on consumer electronics. Statista estimates the turnover in 2022 in “telecommunication device repair” will be 94.1 million euros. Because especially with mobile phones, glass will break and batteries will run out, over and over again. Occasionally only third-party suppliers supply the correct spare parts – since the big industry players would rather engender new purchases. Therefore, every Central European “produces” around 22 kilograms of electronic scrap each year.
Statistics show that every repair extends the device lifetime by at least 30 percent, thus saving energy and carbon dioxide.
Trend towards repairing
But every trend brings its counter-trend. As more and more people throw things away, others pick up more of the broken things. Assembly instructions, tips and assistance courses have been flooding the Internet for some years. There are explanatory videos on how to ventilate a heater, how to screw on a bicycle seat, or how to replace the windscreen wipers. DIY is increasing and is now a timely update for the good old DIY movement. Repair work cafes (sometimes called Repaircafé) bring together people who would not have met otherwise. Such initiatives are sprouting up everywhere: The “Bern Repair Cafe Club” or the “Frick RepairBAR” combine good conscience, social activism and sustainable thinking. Statistics show that every repair extends the device lifetime by at least 30 percent, thus saving energy and carbon dioxide (for the production of a replacement or for its connected transport). The fact that there is a good atmosphere in many initiatives and clubs and that people have the feeling that they are doing something meaningful is just cream on the pudding of the ecological-social movement. Some governments have recognized this and now promote repairing. For example, Sweden remits VAT on proven repairs. And Austria introduced the so-called “Repair bonus” in September 2018. Graz, the Styrian state capital, will pay half the costs if citizens have their electrical appliances repaired by local technicians. An early survey shows that 21 tons of electronic waste have already been saved.
Not everyone loves the new repair and DIY movement. “In order to be able to repair more small electronic devices, one should have better access to spare parts, one needs repair instructions and it must be financially worth it”, notes “Deutsche Handwerkszeitung” (the German trades gazette). Also there, Alexander Neuhäuser complains that much is not designed to be repairable. Thus, the Director for Law and Economics at the Central Association of German Electrical and Information Technology Trades (ZVEH) is not alone.
Obsolescence is the name of the phenomenon. The planned premature wear of items, supported by short product and fashion cycles, occurs through known vulnerabilities, which cause the devices to wear out prematurely, or at least seem old visually, is a sales tool that aims to guarantee consistent sales of replacement purchases. One of the most well-known and best-documented cases is the so-called Phoebus cartel that limited the lifetime of incandescent lamps to 1000 hours. “In order to reduce the burning hours of incandescent lamps, and to monitor the standard, a substantial technical effort was made,” states ‘Wikipedia’. In 1942, the US government sued General Electric and other corporations for illegal price fixing and unfair competition.” In 1953, General Electric was convicted and “among other things, prohibited from reducing the lifetime of incandescent lamps; however, there was no required payment of a penalty.”
When Alexander Neuhäuser complains about the “lack of repair-ability”, he is referring primarily to cheap imports from the far east. Admittedly, the Director of Law and Economics also sees the legal issues with repair cafes, where tradesmen work for free: “If a skilled tradesman is involved, he remains liable, even if he is a volunteer.” To be sure, there has been no case thus far. A pointer towards possible competition? Or rather, an expression of the fact that users and tradesmen are in the same boat and are dependent on products of industry that should be repairable.
Instead of submitting to the rule of obsolescence and consuming ever more, we can become active users once again. We can lend and repair.
Future friendly facilitator
Things do not last forever, and even the best repair only delays the end. However, that is not the issue. Behind the objects themselves are the attitudes. As far back as the seventies, Pier Paolo Pasolini cursed “Consumerism” as a new form of totalitarianism. The director, author and intellectual feared that consumer-oriented mass culture would destroy all, primarily the social forms of life.
There is another way. For example, with Ikea’s Retail and Recovery Program. Each day, around 1,200 items are returned, IKEA Recovery Manager Hans Wegschaider said in 2016 during an interview with “Lebenskonzepte” (Living Concepts). The returned products are sorted and, if necessary, re-welded and resold. There are ever increasing business models for renting things instead of selling them. For example, at lifetime end, cradle2cradle carpets are returned, taken apart and woven into new carpets. This is the smart way against the compulsion to consume, against predetermined break points, thin materials and shoddy connectors. Instead of submitting to the rule of obsolescence (which also includes visual decline due to fast fashion cycles) and consuming ever more, we can become active users once again. We can lend and repair. Getting things to work again while in a group is not only sustainable, it is also mainly fun. Isn’t this what the consumer world wanted to instill in us? Have fun! But, do it now.