Do farmers have a right to repair their own tractors? The American Farm Bureau Federation thinks so. That’s why this year it reached an agreement with John Deere in which the manufacturer promised to enable farmers, as well as third-party mechanics, to fix their own green-and-yellow machinery, for example by providing service manuals and diagnostic tools that earlier only licensed shops could access. For many farmers, this change could be economically transformative, enabling older tractors to be used longer rather than being replaced because of the high repair costs. The farmers’ federation is now working to reach similar agreements with other manufacturers.
The John Deere agreement is one more small but significant victory for the right to repair movement, which has been taking aim at practices in industries ranging from automotive to consumer electronics that restrict the ability to fix things, driving up costs for users and (often deliberately) forcing them to replace items that might still work. Targets include nonreplaceable laptop batteries, software updates that disable video game consoles, and toner cartridges programmed to stop printing even when they still contain ink.
Joseph Zbukvic, Boat Repair, watercolor on paper. All artwork used by permission.
In view of the role that discarded products play in clogging landfills and polluting drinking water, the movement argues that repair is key to addressing environmental damage from consumer capitalism. “You can’t make them last if you can’t make them work,” one advocate told Wirecutter. “Any time a manufacturer says that they are being good to the environment, and then they refuse to let you fix your stuff, I just cry foul.”
Around the globe, governments are increasingly committed to making the right to repair the law of the land. India’s Ministry of Consumer Affairs is developing a set of rules requiring manufacturers of electronics, farm equipment, and automobiles to let people fix products themselves. France requires tech manufacturers to register their products with a national “repairability index.” And in the United States, the Federal Trade Commission has announced that it will crack down on repair restrictions.
Whatever the merits of these specific policy measures, they are responding to a growing sense that a consumer economy based on pushing people to discard the old and buy the new is no longer sustainable. Yet in an age in which smartphone models go out of date within months and many clothes are worn once or twice before being binned, the champions of repair face powerful obstacles. After all, obsolescence of consumer goods has been a cornerstone of the growth of developed economies for a century.
In an age in which smartphone models go out of date within months and many clothes are worn once or twice before being binned, the champions of repair face powerful obstacles.
In his 2006 book Made to Break, the historian Giles Slade points to 1923 as the year when manufacturers began to make a regular cycle of obsolescence and replacement central to their growth strategy. In the nineteenth century, companies had sought success by making products that were durable and repairable – Singer sewing machines, McCormick agricultural machinery. Manufacturing designs tended to reflect an ethic of stewardship. This was the ethic that most famously guided Henry Ford in his commitment to producing a car, the Model T, that was affordable to the masses, built for years of use, and easy to fix. At first, Americans responded enthusiastically; by 1920, 55 percent of US families owned a Tin Lizzie. Ford would later sum up his goal: to build a car that was “so strong and so well-made that no one ought ever to have to buy a second one.”
The downside to Ford’s commitment to durability and repairability was that it discouraged repeat customers. His competitor Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors saw the opening. Taking inspiration from the world of fashion, one hundred years ago he began experimenting with bringing out new car models each year, often varying only color and styling, so that trend-conscious buyers would keep buying the latest Chevrolet. Sloan’s collaborator Harley J. Earl was candid about their aim: “Our big job is to hasten obsolescence.”
The plan worked. By the end of the 1930s, GM had overtaken Ford as the world’s biggest car manufacturer. In the decades that followed, manufacturers of a wide range of consumer goods, eventually including Ford as well, would learn the lesson and aim for obsolescence as the key to sales growth. Over the following decades, the quickening replacement cycle for things we buy has become so embedded in daily life that it seems part of the natural order of things.
But of course it’s not. And the vast quantities of waste that result, some of it toxic, are becoming hard to ignore. They are symptoms of what Pope Francis has called “throwaway culture.” In Laudato si’, his 2015 encyclical, Francis doesn’t limit his discussion of throwaway culture to obvious examples such as electronic waste, disposable packaging, greenhouse gases, agro-industrial runoff, or the accumulation of plastics in oceans. Such problems, after all, might be solved with the right mix of policies and technologies from within the framework of consumer capitalism. Instead, the disposability of things becomes for him, by a kind of synecdoche, a symbol of the disposability of the natural world itself, “our common home,” which our technological society is destroying in selfish pursuit of dominance. And it’s a symbol too of the disposability of people, especially “the excluded” – the poor, people with disabilities, the elderly, immigrants and refugees, and the unborn. To resist throwaway culture, Francis suggests, requires more than just finding fixes for pollution or climate change. It demands a revolution against a modernity based on what he calls “rapidization,” together with the financial and political systems that power it.
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