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.
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.
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:
- Ethical Consumption: How to Pollute the Planet and Exploit Labor Slightly Less
- Fast Fashion: Why It’s Fucking up the World and How To Avoid It
- You Deserve Cheap Toilet Paper, You Beautiful Fucking Moon Goddess
- You Are above Bottled Water, You Elegant Land Mermaid
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.
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.