Before Fixing the Planet, We Have to Fix Everyday Things

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As a kid growing up in India in the 1990s, I spent hours in my parents’ shop that sold phones and office communication equipment. I was mostly there to fool around with new models of mobile phones from Motorola, Siemens, Ericsson—remember the Nokia 3310? In a small room upstairs, engineers worked tirelessly repairing these devices using tiny screwdrivers and funky-smelling solder guns.

As the 2000s rolled in, however, their repair business began to shrink—from four full-time staff to one part-time worker—until it was no longer profitable to provide the service in-house. Instead of fixing their electronics, people just bought new gadgets. After all, tech companies were pumping out new products with never-before-seen features all the time. 

All that consumption has left behind a pile of waste in landfills. Electronic trash rose 21% in the five years to 2019, according to the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership. Collecting and recycling that waste could avoid as much as 80 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually—about how much Chile generates in a year. The United Nations expects e-waste to double between now and 2050.

The rising awareness of the problem has led to “right to repair” legislation in rich countries, with the U.K.’s version coming into effect this month. None of the laws are yet strong enough to bring back the culture of repair that existed when I was growing up, but they are starting to address a problem that has the potential to both save money and cut emissions.

To understand how, I spoke to Sandra Goldmark, director of campus sustainability and climate action at Barnard College and the author of Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What do you think got us into this problem?

On the one hand are the hoarders. People who have the sense of attachment or utility or whatever that is so strong that they can’t let go. On the other hand are the compulsive shoppers, who want to just buy, buy, buy to sort of fill an insatiable need. The sweet spot is in the middle, where we hold onto things rationally and we’re able to pass them on. Where we buy high-quality items that we actually need. That’s the way forward for the society and for the planet.

The U.K.’s legislation requires manufacturers of some electronic goods to provide spare parts to consumers and retailers that will enable, say, a washing machine to last at least 10 years. Is that good enough?

Over the years of running repair shops, we found that about 15% of all things that we could not repair were because parts were unavailable. So just making parts easier to find would help. You want the local hardware store owner to think “Yeah, I know where I can get that part. It’s going to take me 10 minutes and it will make me a small profit.” It will help diversify their revenue sources and make the enterprise more sustainable financially and environmentally.

There are small startups that are pushing for “full circularity” where the raw materials used to make a product are then re-used again at the end of life, rather than going into a landfill. Are there any large companies doing it?

Patagonia is one example. They have all three business models. They sell high-quality new stuff that uses raw materials from sustainable sources. They also sell their own used products. And they offer repairs. But if Patagonia is the only one you can hold up, then we’re not there yet. Patagonia was years ahead of others.

You write in your book that people have more attachment to things they build with their own hands. But isn’t the Ikea model more about pushing you to buy more new things?

That’s an interesting one. Basically I had to keep rewriting the Ikea chapter again and again because new announcements kept being made. In June 2020, Ikea announced that it will become a circular business within a decade. Until then, they had been dipping their toes in the water, trying and testing ideas. But they hadn’t acknowledged that the business model itself was flawed, and that other sustainable initiatives were only nibbling around the edges.

The proof is in the pudding, but I’m willing to take them at their word. Because look what happened afterwards, Target announced that its own products will be fully circular by 2040.

Akshat Rathi writes the Net Zero newsletter, which examines the world’s race to cut emissions through the lens of business, science, and technology. You can email him with feedback.

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