Washing Machines, Rights and Responsibilities

Why is it so hard to get something repaired? Why is it so hard to find out how to do it yourself? Why do we make so little effort to change this?

I had a relatively new washing machine, which every few months refused to work for a week or so. Obviously an electrical or electronic problem. So I called the manufacturer and they sent the maintenance man (100 euros just to show up at your door) and he said it was a problem with the mother board. And they don’t replace mother boards. They just try to sell you a new washing machine. I put up with the situation for a few years but eventually the mother board gave up the ghost. So off went a perfectly good motor, drum and associated mechanical bits and pieces to the dump where some of it might perhaps get recycled. All of which might not be so bad, if this weren’t the result of deliberate policy on the part of the manufacturer. Not just this one. We’re talking about a standard and deliberate manufacturing policy. It’s called built-in or planned obsolescence. It’s not new. I can still hear my father railing against this back in the 1960’s. In the 50 years since then, it’s become ingrained and steadily more extreme. 

Planned Osolescence

In Friends of the Earth’s Dutch magazine, Down To Earth, there was a major article bearing the name Right To Repair. What they’re saying, in a nutshell, is that we have the right to expect that things are manufactured to be repairable. I’ll vote for that. But what does it mean? If a whole economic system is built around obsolescence, what would replace it? How could we gain such a right? What constitutes a right anyway? What’s our role in all this?

The article points us to an alternative economic and production model known as Circular Economy. The basic premise here is that, if things are designed and manufactured to be repairable, re-usable and recyclable, not merely do we protect the environment and the world’s natural resources but we stimulate the economy by creating new value networks. An excellent set of resources explaining the theory and highlighting current initiatives is available from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, from which the diagram below is borrowed.


Another great resource is Circle Economy in The Netherlands.

It’s important to understand that all those different levels of use and return (the arrows and cycles in the diagram) are essential to the model and therefore to the success of such an approach. Without all of this you can’t make the whole system work. It won’t be economically feasible or you won’t produce effectively (i.e. to meet people’s need) or you’ll run out of resources – or all of these.

There are other changes that need to happen if circular economy is going to become a reality. These have to do with how we perceive work, organization, planning, participation and the process of democracy. It seems to me there’s a major change going on beneath the economic, social and political mainstream these days. New and challenging ideas are coming from multiple directions and with multiple areas of focus. What they have in common is an understanding that the option to keep doing things as we have for the last 150 years simply doesn’t exist.

There are also a lot fine words on the subject coming from the European Union and various national governments. That’s encouraging but we need to be conscious that a circular economy is a massive challenge both to powerful vested interests and to our own habits acquired over (at least) the last 50 years. If we want this to happen we’re going to have to work for it. Work to win it and work to keep it. With every “right” comes a responsibility (thanks to my friend Tom Graves for never letting me forget this).

Rights are not given. They are won and can be taken away.

And if they are worth winning, we have a responsibility to use them. A right is not passive. It’s not a permission to sit back and let someone else (the government, your neighbor…) do the work.

As Kyle Wiens of iFixit says in that Friends of the Earth magazine “our mission is to teach everyone that you can repair anything”. That’s one of the things we can do to start to change things: make an effort ourselves to fix things (and no, I’m not a star at that either), use the resources of iFixit and others to learn how. Or find someone else who can fix it – and pay them. Stimulate a repair economy and undermine the throwaway economy. Do something small or do something big but do something. And keep doing it.