To Repair or Not to Repair? That is the Question.

We are familiar with the 3R’s of waste reduction -- Reduce, Reuse and Recycle -- but did you know there is an honorary fourth R? Repair. We know what you’re thinking. “Repair… it’s expensive and difficult to repair things these days. It’s really hard to justify.” And you would be right. Repair has fallen out of fashion, for a number of reasons:

wrenches1) A one-way boat trip for manufactured goods. Many of our products are made inexpensively overseas, but to fix them you’re not likely to send them back there. Getting things fixed locally requires paying North American wages. In many cases, the cost of repairing an item will be very close to, if not more than, replacement cost. Not a great incentive.

2) Products are designed to be minimally repairable or not repairable at all. The one-way system described above plays a large role. If products are made cheaply enough (read: efficiently), they can be priced so low that buying a new one is cheaper than repairing it, then there is no incentive to the companies to design for repair or to develop a repair infrastructure. Designing products that are extremely difficult to repair, like the electronics companies that glue their batteries down so that consumers can’t change them without wrecking the product, ensures a shorter product life and increases sales.

3) We value repaired things less than ‘mint condition’ or ‘new’ things, the outcome of decades of planned obsolescence (designing products to become out-of-date or to wear out after a certain length of time). Consumers have been so conditioned to want newer, more ‘on-trend’ products that there may be no point in building them to last. Who wants to fix the flower print couch in the basement? If you’re interested in delving a bit deeper into the idea, we suggest you watch the documentary The Lightbulb Conspiracy for free online. 

Now that we’ve outlined some reasons why it is so hard to repair things, what about repair? How viable is it anymore? Well, we think it is still a useful option and certainly a goal worth striving for. There is an interesting Japanese term: Kintsugi (golden joinery) or Kintsukuroi (golden repair). It refers to the art of mending broken pottery with gold. The pottery is then considered to be more beautiful for having been broken and repaired.

While most of the products we want to repair aren’t pottery, and we’re probably not going to use gold to fix them, what if we got into that same spirit?  There are many out there who have, and you can find their experiences, knowledge and tutorials online. If you experience a problem with any given product, chances are someone else has had the same problem, and has found a solution.

Here are some strategies for avoiding unfixable products and promoting repair:

  • Use product review options on company websites. They can be a great guide to avoiding lemons. Be sure to add your own review to the collective knowledge base.
  • Be a squeaky wheel: let companies know that you did or did not purchase a product based on its longevity. If a product is crappy – say so. They listen.
  • If you’re tempted to buy something cheap since you will not need it much, try to borrow or rent. Put out a request to your friends on Facebook, check Kijiji, or a similar online classified site, to see if someone is giving what you need away for free or cheap, or try a rental service.
  • Look for ways to support companies who build durable products that can be easily repaired.
  • Find repair advice: Search online forums or Youtube for info on how to fix something yourself (within reason of course). You’ll be surprised at the wealth of information out there! If you’re technologically inclined you probably already know about iFIxit.
  • And lastly, try online business directories or classified sites for local repair shops. They do exist! And though you may be voiding your (somewhat useless) warranty, you’ll get to deal with a real human being, with knowledge, and even support a local business.
  • Invest in start-up companies with smart (repairable) product designs.