I have purchased several antique items over the last few years and as I use and admire these items I can’t help but wonder: is anything being built nowadays with planned endurance? Is anything being built with the intention of the items being around and being used a hundred years from now or even fifty years from now?
Both of my antiques, one a toaster that actually flips the bread over automatically, and the other a music cylinder playing device, were built at the turn of the last century (around 1900). They share several characteristics; they are made of metal of sufficient thickness to endure, they have few moving parts, and one could repair them fairly easily. In terms of the toaster, if the element burns out one could install a new one. Heating elements are still available! If the cord were to fray too much, a new cord could be added. The cylinder recorder has needed no spare parts up to now but one could fabricate them if needed. The needle is designed to be replaced easily.
Imagine if the things made for our purchase were designed as these two objects were. Unfortunately for store owners, there wouldn’t be much for sale. So much of our modern lifestyle is about buying and then disposing of items after a short time in our hands. Planned obsolescence! A trip to the dump and a look into the bins reveals: bicycles, plastics, carpets, mattresses, tires, appliances, furniture, clothing, electronics. Electronics especially, seem to need replacement after only a few years. They don’t wear out, simply become inferior to newer versions, or are not able to keep up with the newest software. It’s all very interesting how the electronics market keeps redefining itself.
When I was a child my family spent four years living in England. I remember gypsies would come by twice a year and go door to door repairing pots and sharpening knives and scissors. Our shoes were often resoled or repaired long before we’d think of buying a new pair.
I recently tried to repair a washing machine that started leaking. It was a frustrating experience and made me realize what an optical illusion the manufacturers create when they design our appliances. The modern washing machine I owned was nothing like the wringer washing machine that my family had when I was a kid. That machine survived years of use and was still working well when it was traded in on an automatic model. My modern washing machine could not be repaired! I remember a used refrigerator I had in the basement when my kids were teenagers. I paid $50 for an International Harvester fridge that must have been built in the forties. It ran great all the time I owned it and when I sold it, it was still running! It was obviously built to last.
In these post bank collapse days (and I do feel that the international financial crisis is not yet over) we do need to think about our purchases. Is what we’re buying really necessary? If the item is necessary, is it available in a form that is made of metal or a very serviceable alternative material?
Are parts readily available to repair the item? Often, a more durable, repairable device is more expensive, but when the cost of several inferior products are added up there may be a real advantage to purchasing the higher quality item.
If you really think about it, a lifestyle that is truly sustainable in terms of our precious earth would involve us purchasing very few items and would be a very different life from the life that most of us are living. Do you think we can do it?
Dr. Hill is a member of the American Association of Dental Sleep Medicine.