Throw It Away: What is behind our throwaway culture and why can’t we fix it?

There’s something quaint about visiting a repairman. Most of us shop at big-box stores to replace a malfunctioning item, rather than look to have it fixed. But tinkering is a time-honored tradition. If we can’t be a nation that makes things anymore, surely we can prioritize employment of those who can fix what we already have.

Purchasing Habits 

We purchase fridges, toasters, clothes, shoes, thousands of different things—and if any of these items break, our first reaction is to purchase a replacement and throw the defective item away. Our economy is designed to work this way, from the ground up. Growth for many companies is tied to how often they can sell you their product.

This isn’t an issue exclusive to the US. All developed western economies are producing waste at a prodigious rate. With sustainability concerns looming overhead, creative thinking is required—and some countries are stepping up to the plate. Sweden, for instance, has created an interesting tax incentive to prioritize repair over replacement. Those who bring bicycles, clothes or shoes to be repaired will have their VAT (Value Added Tax) slashed by half. Say labor and parts for a repair person to fix your fridge costs $200. In Sweden, VAT on that transaction adds an extra $50. The tax incentive to repair rather than replace would reduce VAT by half, to $25.

Intellectual Property Laws and Planned Obsolescence 

Could a similar program benefit the American economy? Unfortunately, the situation in the states is complicated by intellectual property laws. Gay Gordon-Byrne is the Executive Director of The Repair Association, an organization that fights for consumer rights—specifically, the right to fix purchased products. According to Gordon-Byrne, “[t]he core problem of blocked repair is not copyright law, but contract law. Copyright law already allows for repair and customization, research, interoperability and use. Purchase agreements often reference some kind of license agreement, and in the license agreement the rights of ordinary use of hardware, including repair, are removed.”

Most famously, companies such as Apple and John Deer are guilty of making the repair process more complicated than it needs to be. They only allow authorized repair technicians to work on their products after sale and keep repair manuals out of the public sphere, effectively barring outside influence on broken products. Gordon-Byrne explains: “Many manufacturers have emulated Apple. Consumers have no idea what rights they give away when installing or even turning on a machine. Most license agreements are written knowing that the consumer will not read it, cannot understand the jargon and cannot negotiate it anyway.”

Could the United States of America follow Sweden’s lead, and cut taxes to incentivize repair over replacement? Gordon-Byrne says that “[s]tates mostly control sales tax, but we do not know of any sales tax initiatives in states, either. When big iconic brands lead in opposition to repair, it takes very strongly principled leadership to remain open to repair in the face of huge opportunities for profit growth. Every local repair job adds to our economy—and nearly every technology purchase stimulates factory jobs in Asia.”

Only time will tell whether more countries will prioritize sustainability over profit. And as our planet continues to suffer the effects of pollution and overconsumption, repairing our broken products may no longer be an option, but a necessity.

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