When product repairability makes a comeback

The “modern wisdom” around most things that break is that it’s cheaper to throw it away than it is to try to fix them. Right? But this has never quite felt right to me. And now that we’re seeing a new floor on oil prices, I suspect that the pendulum will start to swing back to product durability and repair.

I may be romanticizing, but I imagine that once upon a time, products were built to last a long time, and were built to be repairable. If that’s true, then at some point things went off the tracks:

  • I’ve been flipping through the book The Look of the Century which mentions in the 50’s “the decision to build in physical obsolescence, so that through a lack of actual durability the product only had a limited lifespan. The debatable defense..was increased employment.”
  • I wonder if the increasing use of plastics led to more breakage as well.
  • And then of course the wholesale transfer of manufacturing overseas, to places where people work for very little money and live in poverty, which drives down production costs and sticker prices, but then also makes repair uneconomical.
So we’ve come to the point where customers aren’t shocked to find that their 1 year old $19.99 clothes iron is leaking water everywhere. Based on customer reviews on websites like Amazon, there is a lot of frustration from consumers on the poor durability of today’s products. So there may be an opening.
I can see a few potential forces for change towards durability:
  • raw economics: as shipping and material costs go higher, the “cheap” goods may cost a lot more anyhow
  • product availability: I see a real opportunity for smart product makers step up the durability and repairability challenge and build brands around products that last
  • consumer attitudes: as people get more in tune with the waste and futility in the throw-away culture, there will be demand for durability
I also see some challenges to a durability movement:
  • we need to have local repair shops that are able to make a living, and that have the skills needed to fix things. Fortunately there are still a few of these shops around, and hopefully there will continue to be.
  • the products themselves need to have *less* electronics in them. Consumers can help drive this by being smart about avoiding the products with needless electronics and opting for the simpler version.
  • I’d be willing to bet that more solidly built products will cost more. Are people willing to pay?
So the next time something stops working on you, before you reflexively toss it in the trash, ask yourself if it might be repairable, and if not, consider replacing it with something that is.

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