As the recession drags on, people re-embrace frugality. They hold onto their cars a little longer. They buy used clothing or furniture. But amidst the rush to live within our means, something is missing from the resourcefulness of yesteryear: fixit shops, home repair know-how and products that last.
My grandmother lived through the Great Depression. She kept disposable pie tins for reheating her food and darned the holes in my socks. Her peers were similarly thrifty and skilled in basic mending and fixing. In business, cobblers used to resole shoes, and the electronics guy on the corner fixed TVs. Now those tradespeople are mostly gone.
Likewise when we try to fix things ourselves. We often can’t buy a single part. Or more maddening, it’s cheaper to purchase a whole new blender than to replace a single blade.
The truth is that the economics of small appliances, such as vacuum cleaners, toaster ovens, coffee makers and hair dryers, has been turned upside down, making them de facto disposable products. The same even holds for telephones, televisions, computers and peripherals.
This is wasteful, unsustainable and costly to us and to the environment. We’ve seen the repercussions of our throwaway society in outsourced jobs, clear-cut forests, glutted landfills, and the rise of toxic electronics dumps in China and elsewhere.
In developing countries, many people still have the will and ability to fix things. Little goes to waste where thrifty, crafty people get entrepreneurial. But in our rush toward affluence, the United States has embraced designed obsolescence and careless consumerism, squandering vital resources and emptying our bank accounts.
There are logical reasons for our wastefulness, the chief of which is grossly underpriced goods that do not reflect their actual cost to the environment or society.
This business-friendly policy is technically termed “cost externalization,” but what it truly means is that you and I pick up the tab via much higher taxes to clean up the mess that corporations leave behind. We pay for the environmental harm done by industry during natural resource extraction and waste disposal. We also pay higher health care costs, as environmental diseases, such as air pollution-induced asthma, increase. Today, even newborn babies carry a toxic load of industrial chemicals in their bodies.
To change these destructive patterns, we need a new system that makes corporations responsible for their products from cradle to grave (something already happening in Europe). Every product made in or imported to America should undergo a full life cycle accounting. This means that a third party, other than the manufacturer, ought to calculate the real cost of the product from start to finish, including resource extraction; energy and chemical use in production; energy needed for shipping; and the energy and materials required for reuse, refurbishment, recycling or disposal.
Companies especially need to step up to the plate and bear the cost of their products’ disposal, which will make them more likely to build a valuable product that lasts, rather than crafting from a business model of planned obsolescence. In short order, companies will learn to adopt a zero-waste approach, moving from a linear manufacturing model to a circular one. Waste must be designed out of the system through better product design, cleaner production, and easily fixable products with reusable components.
Such changes sound expensive. In fact, companies that have made such innovations – including Intel, Interface Carpet and Autodesk – have all saved money when they focus on production and energy efficiencies, consume fewer raw materials, and reuse waste. Many companies are currently producing two sets of products for the European and American markets. This is absurd and wasteful.
Pricing goods at their real cost will make them more valuable to us as well. When they break, we’ll be more likely to fix them. Buying fewer replacements will save us money over time. We will also see reduced taxes for environmental cleanup as well as reduced health care costs. Finally, there will be a boom in fix-it shops and repair entrepreneurs.
Our 60-year experiment with the throwaway society has meant that with every product we’ve tossed, we’ve also discarded irreplaceable natural resources, energy, and human capital. It’s plain foolish. We can do better – and save money while we’re at it.
Erica Gies has written for The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, Wired News, Grist and E/The Environmental Magazine. She lives in San Francisco.