The problems with repairing products today is that..
It had been only six months since I had bought these shoes. The sole would come out when I took my feet out, there was a hole from which my pinky toe would peek out; it was time to buy a new pair of shoe.
Often on my way to the bus stop, I would spot this cobbler on the foot path (with barely two to three customers). So, I decided to get these repaired. I thought, this would be a kind offering for the cobbler and his fees would buy me some more time to visit a store.
Upon explaining the cobbler what all had to be fixed, I expected him to charge at most a hundred bucks, the guy asked for triple. Coming from a middle class family, I was taught to extract utmost value from the money spent. I was quite surprised at his audacity to ask for such an amount. I started wondering if these old pair were worth it? I mean I could put in another 200 and buy new ones and which would last me another six months. That’s when it hit me..
WELCOME TO THE PROBLEMS OF CIRCULAR ECONOMY 101.
- THE BUSINESS, TECHNOLOGY AND DESIGN
These shoes were mass manufactured. These products can afford to have such steep prices. Introducing economy of scale. The archenemy of circular economy. With the adoption of economy of scale, cost of per unit decreases with increase in scale. The baseline is the more you sell the cheaper the products will be. Most consumer goods companies use this model.
But now, when I would look at how the cobbler was trying to mend shoes in an economy like this, I could see the problems:
- Getting products repaired, is not supported by the original manufacturers.
The designers do not design products for repair, the business people want to encourage replacing older products instead of repairing them and the consumers also want the most updated, most relevant and the most trendy products. So, now the systems put in place by the company to make these products are also designed for that. Let me explain that with an example, phones used to come with a removable battery, so whenever your battery life would decrease, you could go buy a spare battery and replace the old one. Now, the battery comes as a part of the body of the phone, designed in such a way that it doesn’t require a cover. Reducing the overall thickness of the phone and the cost of that battery cover. But what this leads to is, every time my battery life decreases I have to buy a new phone. The phone brands explain this shift has been done to achieve thinner and lighter phones and cheaper prices. The consumer always wants more.
Part of the problem is also the fact that products are designed for the cheapest price possible. In order to reduce number of parts required to produce a product, designers are often forced to use unsustainable methods to achieve cheaper production.
Apart from the unrepairable design, the company also makes sure that there aren’t accessible service centres.
I mean think about it, our parents have used products that used to last for decades. (My grandfather has a coffee table that he bought when my mother was 24. That’s how old I am today. The table is still in use and in pristine condition.) Sure they would break down from time to time but repairing them was accessible and much more convenient than it is today.
Now, since it is difficult to get repairs done, they aren’t a popular choice. Which makes whatever repair service that is available, extremely expensive. Which further reduces it’s popularity. This is a vicious cycle.
Although, even if an independent business owner does think of running a repair shop, he experiences a lot of troubles for instances,
- The guy needs skills
Any person in a skill dependent profession or business will tell you that it is hard, it is hard because skills require an investment of time and tools. So it is a struggle to get things started in the first place. Meaning, you have to learn how different types of shoe materials ( leather, cloth, PU, plastic, hybrid, etc ) are to be stuck, stitched, scrapped, dried, punctured, etc. You have to understand what colours of threads, glues, soles go with other colours, materials and finishes. These technical and aesthetic skills are not taught by the corporations that produce shoes, so often times there is a massive dissonance between a repaired shoe versus a brand new factory tailored one. He repair job becomes visible. It stands out from the rest of the shoe.
2) The guy has to source resources for his business
The guy has to rent out a place to set up his shop, buy adhesives, soles, laces, aglets, slipper straps, hammers, needles, threads and what not. But while he is doing all this, in today’s economy where it is easier to buy shoes off of amazon than it is to go find your nearest cobbler, haggle him for a cheap service and take time and effort to get your shoe repaired, it is highly unlikely that people will prefer going for a repair job. There is no guarantee that his business will survive despite all his investments.
3) The guy also has a life
He must have to pay off policemen to keep his shop on the streets, pay his house rent, pay school fees and buy books for his kids, pay for utilities and all basic necessities of living. This guy is trying to make his livelihood survive while he has dependants latched to him.
More than that, the middle class are expanding, he would much rather have his kid go to college and get a job than to run his shop. That adds to the depleting skilled labour work force.
So compared to the larger businesses his chances of survival are slim.
PROBLEMS OF CIRCULAR ECONOMY 102.
- THE CONSUMER CULTURE
As a consumer I do realise that we have been brain washed into this model of consumerism.
- In the area that I live in, there are six shoe stores, walking distance away from my place. Buying new products has never been easier. I am equipped to use online shopping and the experience go buy a new pair of shoe is much more rewarding than getting a repair job done. Making it much more likely for me to buy than to repair.
2) The new shoe would be shinier, brighter and trendier. And of course I would feel more important when I am more relevant with the times. The new shoe will make statements about who I am. The new design will tell whoever is looking at it, what my taste is like. Whereas the repaired shoe will tell everyone that I am thrifty or that I am too broke to buy a new pair. It will scream that I took efforts to go to a cobbler.
So, now in case of a broken shoe, I have to make choice to be associated with either this or that. Most people pick being the former than the latter.
3) At this point if I do recognise these subtleties and decide to go for repair job I would really think hard if this investment in the repair will bring value to me. The repair will extend the use of the product, do I want that? Or is it time to reinvent myself through the shoes?
I also understand that there may be a chance that the repair job probably won’t last as long as the new pair. I may need to repair again in the next few months whereas a new pair will last a year before needing any repair.
As people with responsibility of making the wheel go around, we need to take informed decisions in the choices we make.
My grand parents had seen the freedom fight. Their ideologies and mental models are constructed around scarcity. Save up as much food as you can. You never knew when the resources would stop coming in. So, my parents grew up with the same attitude but they didn’t have to survive during the fight. They just had to make a living. But the behaviour of hoarding things and owning more stuff than required stayed.
It is now time for this generation to realise we are coming from the same place. We need to identify and adjust our behaviour. Our generation is going to witness a different fight. A fight against a force the mightiest of men have feared throughout history. Climate.