You Have the Frugal Right to Repair Your Shit. Or Do You?

Let me tell you about my favorite pair of boots.

They’re calf-high brown leather with a one-inch heel that makes this short Bitch feel just a little more powerful. They’re the kind of boots you can wear with a dress, with leggings, with jeans—they’re exactly as dressy or as casual as you want. I got them almost five years ago for about $200.

Recently, the heels broke. I’d worn them down to the point that chunks of the sole had snapped off and gotten trapped inside the heel so they rattled when I walked. So I took them to a cobbler. $50 later, I had new, beautiful heels attached to my favorite boots. Good as new!

Now let me tell you about my last phone. It was a magical pocket-size computer that did everything from calculating tips to playing music to oversharing on social media. (Note: it did not call home often enough, which was a major design flaw as far as my mom’s concerned.) After three years, I noticed the battery failing. Soon it could barely hold a charge for a few hours, let alone all day.

I brought it in for repairs. And they told me that replacing the battery was so financially and technically inefficient that they simply… wouldn’t. But, they assured me, I could upgrade to a newer, better model for only $24.99! Per month, that is. Which is way cheaper than replacing the battery, promise!

I couldn’t get anyone to replace my phone battery. There was no cobbler-equivalent phone artisan wearing a leather apron and bifocals in a musty shop lovingly repairing old phones.

Out of options, I bought a new phone. And just to spite the fuckers, I paid the total cost up-front.

What’s the difference?

When the heels broke I could have thrown my boots away and bought a new pair, contributing to a landfill and wasting money. But instead I chose to repair the beloved boots I’d worn to breaking. When I tried to do the same with a phone I didn’t give a fuck about but needed for my career, I got laughed out of the minimalist hellscape that is the Apple Store.

So what’s the difference between my boots and my phone? Why was it easy, quick, and affordable to repair one and completely impossible to repair the other?

Answering this question sent me down a pedantic, surprisingly activist rabbit hole. I learned about the lost art of fixing shit, the financial and environmental efficiency of unbreaking broken things, and the Right to Repair movement. And because this is my blog and I pay the bills around here, I’m now going to inflict all that knowledge on you.

Waste, over-consumption, and planned obsolescence

Since the rise of the Industrial Revolution, our manufacturing processes have not exactly been designed with sustainability and moderation in mind. It’s more like “These liquified dinosaur bones make the cars go vroom? Well then let’s find and use ALL OF IT,” or “You mean we can make garments so fast and cheap everyone can have more than, like, two handmade outfits? Sir, I’d like to sell you a walk-in closet!”

We’ve gone a little overboard with the manufacture of stuff, in other words.

Manufacturing drives our consumer economy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing! Lots of folks have been pulled out of poverty and shitty standards of living by manufacturing jobs and the consumerist economy. But excessive manufacturing and consumption without a care for resource conservation or pollution is most definitely a bad thing. But that’s largely what we got.

Generating consumption

It’s easier to convince folks to consume some stuff than others. Fashion, for example, is a constantly evolving market overseen by a despotic cabal of Fashion Police who will arrest you if your outfit is soooooo 2010. Under such oppressive circumstances, we all flock to boutiques with seasonal regularity lest we be caught dead in last season’s [checks notes] skinny jeans and peasant blouses???

It’s harder to encourage frequent consumption in other markets, however. So to turn a profit, those markets have to get creative.

You have a car that gets you where you want to go. Most of its parts are designed to be fixed or replaced. With a strong regimen of maintenance and regular repairs, you could hold onto this car for decades (unless you ran into teenage me driving my brother’s Jeep with my customary combination of reckless abandon and utter incompetence, in which case you’d better have insurance).

But driving your reliable steed for 20 years doesn’t make car manufacturers a dime. They need to find a way to incentivize you to give up the car you’ve carefully been maintaining for years and buy a new one. So cars (and electronics and appliances) have become increasingly more difficult and expensive to repair. When something can’t be repaired, it gets replaced.

Kitty recently needed a replacement part for her vacuum. Just one small part, and the whole vacuum would be good as new! The repair shop told her they didn’t manufacture the part for replacement. They couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) fix her machine, so she might as well buy a new one. One tiny part, irreplaceable, meant pounds and pounds of metal and plastic entering the landfill for no good reason.

Except the reason is clear: it forced her to buy a new vacuum.

Planned obsolescence

A lot of things are not designed to last. We see this most often in tech, where every year or so a new generation of gadget comes out and the old generation slowly stops working so well. Remember my dead phone battery? It goes deeper than that.

My junk drawer is bursting with generations of iPhone charger cables. Every few iterations, Apple changes the charging port in their phones in the name of technological advancement, making the charging cable for the previous generation obsolete. You can’t use those old chargers on your new phone, and you can’t keep using your old phone because it breaks down over time.

This practice is known as planned obsolescence:

Planned obsolescence describes the practice of designing products to break quickly or become obsolete in the short to mid-term. The general idea behind this is to encourage sales of new products and upgrades, a practice that has been banned in some countries. The strategy is attributed to the motor industry in the United States when, in 1924, a General Motors executive, Alfred P. Sloan Jr., suggested launching new models every year to keep sales moving.

Iberdrola

So the Fashion Police may have failed in their mission to compel me to buy new boots, but the tech industry got me with that planned obsolescence. What’s a girl to do?

The solution? Repair what you already own

We could save the world with our choice to repair instead of replace. Or at least we’d make a dent in a few big problems.

Prevent pollution and resource waste

Every year we throw almost 150,000,000 tons of crap directly into landfills.

On top of that, we keep using the Earth’s finite resources as if they are instead… infinite. And lots of these resources—single-use plastic containers, fucking phone batteries—are manufactured largely for temporary use.

Reusing things is a great way to slow the progress of pollution and resource waste. Sustainability researchers refer to this as a closed or circular economy. It means that nothing is wasted. It all just goes back into the system, being repaired and eventually recycled into new materials for different uses. Dr. Paul Hawken has a lot to say about this in his excellent book, Drawdown. Or if you’re short on time, read our articles on sustainable consumption instead:

Save yourself some doll-hairs

My boots cost $200. I paid $50 to have them repaired. That’s a savings of $150 over a brand new pair of boots of the same high quality. The math speaks for itself: repairing something I already owned saved me money.

Mending holes in clothing, replacing the screws in creaky furniture, patching containers, repairing electronics… all of this is less expensive than replacing slightly damaged items. Plus, the frugality of it all will give you that most glorious of feelings: smugness.

Employ local artisans

My mother was a tailor. She sewed my new blue jeans.* And she does a brisk business in mending and alterations because her skills with a sewing machine are so rare and in-demand in the Year of Our Lord 2022. It’s a great home-based business for her, as it allows her the flexibility to take care of my elderly grandmother while she works.

Artisans like my mom and the cobbler who repaired my favorite boots are a valuable part of our economy. They have specialized skills that most of us don’t have the knowledge or patience to perform. Employing them ensures those specialized skills don’t die out.

When we talk about “shopping local,” part of what we’re talking about is local artisans who make their living repairing broken things. They keep resources out of landfills, save consumers from the cost of buying new things, and keep money circulating in local economies as independent businesspeople.

But while all of that—saving money, employing artisans, and saving the planet—is nicely motivating… it doesn’t solve the problems of planned obsolescence and hyper-consumption.

Introducing the Right to Repair Movement

Recognizing the frugal efficiency of fixing stuff instead of buying new stuff, a movement has sprung up to challenge some of the more insidious practices of manufacturers driving over-consumption. It’s called the Right to Repair movement. And these crafty, pedantic luddites are so my people.

One of their goals is to tackle manufacturing and sales practices like planned obsolescence that encourage over-consumption. But they also have a much larger philosophical aim: to challenge the very nature of ownership itself.

When you own something, you’re supposed to do whatever the hell you want with it (short of using it to overthrow governments or mass-murder puppy dogs, of course). Restricting our ability to repair our property is a violation of ownership rights, as far as the Right to Repair movement is concerned.

And I fucking agree! If I want to keep my iPhone 8 running for the next 60 years, I should be able to make that happen! I should be able to replace its hydrospanner and update its quantum gizmotronics, as often as I like, for as long as I choose to own it!

According to The New York Times, Nathan Proctor, senior right to repair campaign director at U.S. Public Interest Research Group, gets it in a nutshell: “We shouldn’t be recycling usable technology, we should be reusing it. That’s far better for the environment.”

Yet companies like John Deere view the right to repair as a violation of their… intellectual property??? Because if farmers are able to repair the tractors they own, it will somehow be a slap in the face of the manufacturer’s proprietary design????? I wish I were making this up. But this is why the Right to Repair movement has their work cut out for them.

Successes of the Right to Repair Movement

Even with such a big job ahead of them, the growing Right to Repair movement has made progress.

A recent bill was passed in the European Union to make all laptops and phones compatible with the same kind of charging cable. A blow straight to the heart of planned obsolescence!

Sites like iFixit have emerged to offer product “teardowns,” in which a guy in a Guy Fawkes mask someone takes a product apart and puts it back together as a tutorial for others doing DIY repairs. They also publish documentation for users to repair their own possessions when manufacturers won’t.

There’s a whole ecosystem on YouTube for stubborn DIY fixers like me desperate for the right to repair. My car, for example, has nothing in its user manual about how to turn off the “change oil” light once the oil’s been changed. The manual just says to go to the dealership to get it taken care of. Which is of course more expensive than changing the oil myself or even taking it to my local Jiffy Lube. Filled with right to repair indignation, I turned to a generous YouTuber who showed me not only how to change the oil, but how to turn the light off.

Get involved

The Right to Repair movement is pretty loosely affiliated right now. But there are activists and lobbyists fighting for policy change. If you’re an introvert allergic to talking to people, you don’t have to go that far, though.

All you really need to do to get involved in the Right to Repair movement is to, well… repair stuff yourself. Support local artisans and repair shops. Learn to fix your things yourself. Reuse, reuse, reuse!

An elderly neighbor recently passed away. When her relatives held an estate sale, I went over to see if I could find any treasures. And that’s where I found it: a vintage sewing machine from the 1940s, in perfect working order.

With the face of my mother floating above me like Mufasa saying “Remember who you are, Simba,” I bought the damn thing for $20.

I have joined the movement. And with this heavy-as-fuck iron sewing machine, I will strike a blow for the right to repair! Now what are you doing to assert your right to repair? Share your stories in the comments, bitchlings!

*My father was not, in fact, a gambling man down in New Orleans.

35 thoughts to “You Have the Frugal Right to Repair Your Shit. Or Do You?”

  1. Loved this article. I fix stuff whenever I can.

    And I have a couple of clothing looks that I run with and use my local thrift stores on the rare occasions when I feel like adding to my wardrobe. Screw the fashionazis. I haven’t arrived at minimalism yet but am gradually paring down. I mean, FFS, how much clothing does one person actually NEED?

    My daughter would kill for that sewing machine, LOL.

  2. One of my greatest prides is that my 2010 macbook and iMac are still running. Now that I’m married, I also repair my spouses’s macbook. I’ve actually started to run into software planned obsolescence now. Both my computers meet all the hardware specs for the graphic design software I need for work because I’ve upgraded them, but there’s an assumption that computers that old don’t have the hardware, so I can’t install current software. So far I’ve been able to work around it, but I’m constantly bracing myself for the day I’m forced into an upgrade.

    1. Ugh yes, so much this. I generally refuse to update operating systems on my devices because of this. I have a 2014 Macbook Air that is finally slowing down, and I live in fear of the day I have to replace it. I haven’t updated my phone OS in years and I’ve noticed a huge slow down any time I update the handful of apps that require it.

    2. This is incredibly frustrating. You’ve done more than most people to keep those computers running and yet you’re STILL fighting against the manufacturer’s desire to sell you new stuff. Keep fighting the good fight!

  3. Fairphone is a company that makes smart phones that customers are encouraged to repair themselves, they even send you a repair kit with a mini screwdriver to take the device apart if you need to. It run’s google’s android OS, so it’s comparable to any other smartphone on the market as far as usage goes. The only drawback is they’re not sold in the US yet.

    1. So…they are ebay-able to the US. I did that earlier this year (they have a frequency in every band the US uses), but the warranty won’t carry over to the US. I’ve been really happy with it except that the Fairphone 4 is a little too big for me to text one handed. But omg, 8 gigs of RAM, so terribly sexy, I don’t think I can go back.

      Teracube also does a long term warranty and flat rate repairs (also android).

      1. They’re looking into it, so probably messaging them and saying “pleeeeeze, we want it!”:
        “Currently, we only sell and ship Fairphone products to countries within the EEA and to Switzerland, the UK, Norway and Croatia. As an organization based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, we currently focus our sales efforts in Europe. At the same time, we are researching the market and logistic possibilities to sell outside of Europe. You can find our full list of countries where we sell and ship to.”

  4. Old furniture is my jam. I love painting or refinishing and giving things a new home.

    My iPhone 8 is also still going strong. It’s connected to my work login and all sorts of other things that feel exhausting and overwhelming to even think about reinstalling on a new device. I hope to keep it running indefinitely… just waiting for the day… there are already apps I can’t install on my iPad since it’s “too old” now. The internet and the Kindle app still work, though, and that’s mostly what I use it for now anyway.

    1. Girl same. I love turning trash (furniture) into treasures.
      “Too old” should never be a descriptor for a device that was invented in the last, like, decade…

  5. Glorious purpose!

    I repair our seven year old’s torn clothing with custom patches and monster heads. When we had a garden, we recycled cardboard to make lawn lasagna and kill weeds. My favorite food waste savings is keeping the ginger we get with sushi and using the remaining amounts in meals throughout the week.

    We recently relocated to Denmark and frugality and reuse is a way of life here (though there’s plenty of fast fashion too, sadly). Every city and suburb has a recycling center, where people bring their stuff and you can upcycle or reuse everything from clothing to bicycles to appliances.
    All hail the death of the required upgrade.

    1. Sounds like I need to go to Denmark! Also: lasagna lawn??? I’ve heard of lasagna raised garden beds, but didn’t know you could do this for the whole lawn. I’ll have to try it out!

      1. Oh yeah just make sure you remove all the tape (because plastic and it will also ride up eventually through the soil). We did add a layer of mulch on top, but by next fall the stupid lawn was gone and it was pollinator paradise (thyme, lavender, blueberries, strawberries—just be aware that chives will take over the world and fling tiny seed grenades everywhere).

  6. OK so can we also talk about SAAS (software as a service)? And how you can hardly find a program these days that doesn’t charge a subscription instead of a flat fee for a version? It makes me incredibly mad…but I wonder if that’s the alternative to planned obsolescence for physical products.

    Because we live in a capitalist society the line must always go up. More sales must happen. How else do you do that when there are already 1.2 cars for every person in the U.S. for example (or whatever that stat is now)?

    We often talk about “who profits from this behavior/process” on this site, and since, obviously, faster disposal of items means more sales means more profits…there is absolutely zero incentive to change any of this. Are we just stuck with this until politicians grow a spine (highly unlikely) or we achieve a post-scarcity economy (hard to imagine in my lifetime)?

    1. I have been collecting alternative software options for a while (also recommend alternativeto.net for software options by operating system, including phone apps).

      e.g. my image processing software list
      • GIMP – does pretty much everything that photoshop does
      • Lightworks – freeware video editor
      • Blender – freeware 3D renderer
      • Lightzone – replace Lightroom
      • Inkscape – replace Illustrater
      • Audacity – replace Audition
      • Photopea – like Adobe photoshop (https://www.photopea.com/)

      I don’t want to keep flooding this post with my weirdo posts, but if it’s kosher with the Aunties, I could send them my running document and they can share out whatever is useful…? Or shared google doc?

      1. Hi Lynley,
        what a cool list. Thanks for sharing.
        I’d greatly appreciate if the bitches shared your full running list. 🙂

  7. I’m sure you already know about Repair Cafes but thought I would post the link in case not. Repair Cafes are volunteer-run community groups who offer free (usually, although donations are nice) repair services for many items. Take your stuff along and get it fixed, or if you are handy yourself get involved and help fix stuff for others. This map shows where they exist https://www.repaircafe.org/en/visit/

      1. I’m a volunteer instructor at one of these things! No detached button or umbrella canopy can withstand the power of my needle and thread! I’d add that beyond the Repair Cafe model, many other allied but differently named programs also exist. If there’s no Repair Cafe in your area I’d advise people to also try searching online for the name of your town plus terms like Fix-It Clinic, Fix-It Fair, Repair Fair & Share, Dare to Repair, Restart Party, Mending Clinic, and International Repair Day events. Many of these events seem to be hosted by libraries in my part of the world, so take a look at their schedules as well.

  8. We have a couple of bike cooperatives in town, and they are amazing. Everyone is a volunteer and they are a nonprofit, they have open shop hours where you can learn how to make repairs under supervision.

    I also learned to repair clothing thanks to a handy sewing kit from a convention.

    Instead of throwing away, fixing items can not only save money but provide sense of fulfillment when you learn a new skill and do something tangible.

  9. The Right to Repair is also a big thing for medical equipment. Hospitals buy the equipment and then also have to spend thousands of dollars a year for Vendors to work on it. No parts sold, no service manuals given.

  10. I’ve done a few buttons and broken belt loops, but my big stake in the ground is hopefully about to become my computer – my 2015 Mac air is starting to spiral (we’ve reached 5 minutes from opening the clamshell to getting on the zoom call), but Im pretty sure it’s just that the OS is now taking up over two thirds of its storage. So, hopefully soon, I’ll be replacing the operating system with a lightweight and beginner friendly Linux distro called Zorin, which is designed to keep computers functional for 10-15 years. And if for whatever reason it doesn’t work out and I need to replace the hardware in the next 8 years, I’d hope to get a framework laptop, which is a brand designed for tinkering and repair.

  11. Bless YT and its repair videos. I’ve done everything from replace a mustard-seed-sized $5 lightbulb in my car’s interior (do you know what THAT would have cost me to let the dealer handle?) to easy bits on my washing machine, dryer, and stove (each of which would have had a call-out base charge on top of parts and labor, AND they wouldn’t have ordered the part until the first time they’d come out.) It also let me know about 5 years ago that while I could have repaired a 7-year-old clothes washer, the replacement part was so scarce it would have cost me more than a new washer. *scowl*

    But yeah, there’s this GREAT feeling of satisfaction from repairing or refinishing something. The Brits have a wonderful word for it: Chuffed.

    Cool story bro: we bought our first house back in 198mumble from my in-laws when they retired, and since they were moving into a smaller place in a different state they threw in some furniture and the fridge, washer, and dryer for an extra $1000 total. The washer lasted ME another ten years. Shortly after I had to replace it, I was at the Center OF Science and Industry in Columbus OH and saw MY old washing machine in a 1960s-era “appliance store front.” Planned obsolescence hasn’t always been a thing.

  12. Years ago I tried to fix a Keurig that stopped working even though I babied the hell out of it. Learned what a security hex screw/driver is (that was neat) and that most electronic appliances are total shit, then invested in a quality French press. Now I use a weird decision tree involving Repair, Secondhand and Quality. If I can’t repair it, can I get quality secondhand? If I can’t get quality secondhand then what is better: lower quality secondhand or higher quality new? Wish it wasn’t so hard!

  13. In the UK I use a company called eSpares (eSpares.co.uk) which do spares for everything from lawnmowers to mobile phone batteries. It’s saved me so much over the years, and there’s even how to videos for how to remove the old part and install the new one. A lifesaver when you have a cooker element and no idea how to fit it!

  14. I have some sympathy for phone manufacturers as an engineer myself. To get a powerful computer in such a small form factor means the tolerances are incredibly precise and once a device is taken apart it is very difficult to get it back together exactly how it needs to be. That said there are local repair shops in most cities that can replace a cracked screen or weak battery for less than the cost of a new phone. Or there are plenty of YouTube videos showing you how to change out the battery on most phones, but I would not try it unless you’ve got ninja microelectronics skills.

    1. Fair enough, I tried to change my phone’s broken screen in the same spirit in which I repair my bike but I did not end up improving it. Better take that stuff to a repair shop!

  15. I don’t know if anyone has heard of Backmarket, but you can buy used phones on there when yours dies (READ: Is assassinated by big tech) for usually decent prices. They have tons of phones that they refurbish and ship, and I think they have other tech too. You can even get warranty through them, as an alternative to buying a brand new phone. They even price based on how well the device has been cared for in the past.

  16. Great to see you discovering this topic, Piggy! It’s so empowering to repair your own stuff. I’ve always fixed my bike (men STARE when they see womenfolk repair their bike, it’s predictable and funny). Recently, Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald’s book “Modern Mending” has really inspired me to mend everything. Even if you’re not into sewing it’s a great resource, easy to follow and lots of fun techniques.

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