Everything breaks. The hope is always just that it breaks eventually and not all at once. That you get your money’s worth out of the things that you buy before you have to replace them.
This week that’s especially been on my mind. Replacing things. See, our car’s radiator broke, and a while back our TV broke, and recently our vacuum cleaner broke, and, all told, I’m feeling more than a little put out by how breakable the things in our modern life are. And the impulse in our society is that if it’s broken, you throw it out and get a new one. It’s my first impulse too.
Especially when the cost of taking an object to a repairman is as high as simply replacing the item altogether. This was the case with my vacuum. It would have cost $150 to repair or replace. That’s not a lot of money. But it’s enough. It’s a few pairs of jeans or a really nice date-night or a little less debt.
When I contrast this to the way that things used to be made, it makes me sad. Things used to be made to last. I have my mothers old sewing machine. She got it second-hand. It’s one of the first models of fully electric singer sewing machines. It does one straight stitch. It was made in 1948. It still works perfectly. I want to know why we don’t make things like that anymore. I doubt that it’s really so much harder to make a worthwhile product now,with our computer assisted design programs and laser edging, than it was in the 1950s. So where did the quality go?
It went to cheaper parts, and cheaper labor, and lower prices and higher profit margins and larger market shares and the tendency of all businesses to want to grow, often faster than the population of people who buy their things. And so the lifetime warranty became the twenty-five year, became the 10 year, became the 5,2,1, manufacture assumes no liability. The need to design a product that lasts forever simply became the need to design a product that lasts long enough. Long enough for people to forget the sting of the sticker price. Long enough for people to pay off their investment. Long enough so that they come back and buy another product with the same logo made to last an even shorter time.
We don’t fight it. We just throw out the old one and buy new, because repair is as much as replacement and, hey, the new one is shiny.
“A new vacuum is only a hundred fifty bucks,” I said to my husband.
He winced and looked around. “The floor isn’t that dirty.”
It was just enough. Just enough for me to actually stop and think. Wait a minute, if I’m just going to throw this thing out, then I don’t lose anything by taking it apart and trying to fix it. I can’t make it more useless!
With that internal vote of confidence, I disassembled my vacuum. I found inside it a small puppy’s worth of dog hair. (belong to the previous owner of said vacuum), an alarming amount of string, and two disconnected wires. After the wires were reconnected and all parts were de-furred and wiped down, I reassembled the vacuum. I only had three extra parts.
I took it apart again and put it back together. This time with zero remaining parts.
My floors are now wonderfully free of sand, and art project bits, and Cheerio crumbs. My vacuum back to it’s usually indisposable usefulness.
I kind of wonder what else we treat this way. How many things, jobs, places, schools, relationships, people are we just throwing out because it costs the same and hey the new one is shiny. The car that would run fine with a total engine tune up, is replaced before it requires “too much maintenance”. The vacuum that breaks is pitched and replaced. The house in the not so great school district is sold. The people are let go when the profit margin gets tight. And it’s all so incredibly disposable.
How much could we gain if we said to ourselves, “Hey, I can’t make it more broken!” and dove in?
I fixed my car and my vacuum. I’m not really that unique.
Could we maybe fix the broken TV’s, cellphones, cars, houses, neighborhoods? If we could what could we save ourselves? Could we save each other?
What could it hurt to try?