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Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet

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It all started when her toaster broke. And her desk lamp. And her vacuum. Sandra Goldmark, a theatre set designer and university professor in New York, was on maternity leave in 2013 and found the stuff around her was falling apart. But she couldn’t get any of it fixed.

In her new book, Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet, she recalls: “Amazon beckoned. But I didn’t want to get a new vacuum — I wanted the old one to work.”

Brits feel equally frustrated: a 2016 study by Nottingham Trent University found that 45 per cent of people cannot name a repair service they can trust.

As Goldmark says: “I thought about how the vacuum, and desk lamp, and backpack, and toaster are part of a much bigger economic system of large-scale extraction of resources, poor design, rapid manufacture, global distribution, early obsolescence and disposal. I thought about what it means to raise kids in a culture where we place almost no value on longevity, maintenance, durability. Where many of the things we use are disposable, and toxic to the planet and the people who make them. Where many of us are disconnected from the people who make our things and from our ability to mend them. And where we are extracting resources at an unsustainable rate to make things that are, often, just crap.”

Every year, discarded objects like her desk, lamp and vacuum cleaner contribute to 127 million tonnes of landfill in the US alone; in the UK, 14 million tonnes of landfill was produced in 2018.

So Goldmark decided to do something about it. For seven years Goldmark and her husband, Michael, ran a pop-up repair shop in New York with the help of YouTube videos, a small team of amateur tinkerers and Goldmark’s experience as a set designer, where fixing things in a hurry before curtain call was par for the course. Over seven years they fixed 2,500 objects at their repair shop, and in the process came to recognise the repeat offenders and worst culprits in our throwaway culture.

“Printers were a constant source of frustration and failure to the point we stopped accepting them,” Goldmark says over the phone from New York. “If a part was failing it was impossible to get a replacement.” They soon stopped repairing digital products too. It was an iPad that drove them over the edge. “Michael had discovered, the hard way, that [our neighbour’s] iPad was almost impossible to repair; iFixit, an online leader in tech repair activism, gave the 2013 iPad a score of two out of ten for repairability,” she recounts in the book. “Everything is glued down so there is a high chance of cracking the screen during disassembly. And once you get inside that beautiful iPad, it is clear that it was carefully designed either with complete disregard for making it possible to change the screen easily or, worse, to purposefully make it difficult to do so.”

Making parts unavailable is characteristic of the manufacturing culture of intentional obsolescence, in which companies deliberately design a product so it will have a limited lifespan, thereby ensuring consumers will regularly have to buy new ones. For digital products, companies have subtle ways of making things redundant quickly. “Software that inexplicably slows down after certain updates, batteries that can’t be replaced, screens that are glued on. The end of life is baked into the product from the start, but well hidden,” Goldmark writes.

One of the most common impediments to repair is proprietary screws — designed by the company to make them impossible to remove without a specialist screwdriver. Nespresso machines, many toaster ovens and iPhones use such screws. But in her years on the frontline of fixing stuff, Goldmark discovered some companies were better than others at making things that were repairable. “We like Miele vacuum cleaners,” she says. “[With] Kitchen Aid, it is easy to get the parts. Motorola is good. Dualit toasters. Old Panasonic products. One of my coworkers, Adam, loves older things. He opens it up and says, ‘This was made to be fixed. The person who designed it made it really easy for me.’ ”

“They don’t make ’em like they used to” is a cliché, but it is increasingly true. Goldmark cites the case of the Centennial Light, a lightbulb manufactured in 1901 that is still burning over a century later in California. In her book, she explains how durability has been lost in the era of globalisation. “The economics of repair used to be very different. Fifty years ago, when more items were made in the same country where they might be fixed, the relative labour costs were not so disparate. Today, however, when a manufacturer might be paid $3 per hour to make a coffee machine in China or India, when raw materials and fuel for shipping are cheap, and a fixer in the States requires at least minimum wage, it’s easy to see how making new cheap stuff became the dominant model.”

The solution? Goldmark is calling for international labour standards to be adopted to stop the corporate race to the bottom, improve quality and make repair more of a viable option. But how realistic is that in our pile-’em-high, sell-’em-cheap society where economies are fuelled by consumption? “We are not allowed to send rotten toxic food around the world, there are international standards for that,” Goldmark argues. “Why not for stuff? We can have systems of labelling. Why do we need to send a lamp made in unsafe conditions?”

But it is hard to imagine companies closing factories in developing countries and returning them to the West, where wages are higher. “I don’t think we will go back to a time when everything is made locally,” she concedes. “But just because things are manufactured globally, it doesn’t mean they have to be done at the current volume and at low quality. Could things still be made in China, but better quality? We should be selling fewer products at a higher price, and have more local repair and re-use shops. The big economic system is not capitalising on the local economy and it should.”

To encourage a culture of local repair shops, Goldmark suggests governments should give tax breaks to repair providers, as they do in Sweden. She has visions of a circular economy in which Walmart and other big-box stores all have a repair and re-use shop; she insists they could make money doing it. One of the curious things she learnt from her years of repairing was that most of her customers were willing to pay close or equal to the original price of the object, and not for environmental reasons — their motivation was primarily out of emotional attachment to an item. Moreover, getting something fixed enhanced a person’s perception of its value. “This is a phenomenon Ikea and other big businesses would do well to study, for in it lie the seeds of a global economic shift: that emotional attachment represents a willingness to spend money on repair, service and upgrade,” she writes.

There are signs of change. This month Ikea announced a buy back and resell scheme that will launch in the UK on November 27. Customers can return an item and receive vouchers worth up to 50 per cent of its original retail cost. Selfridges announced the launch of a repair and resell service in August. The corporate world is getting on board too. Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, has raised $900 million in a year for its first circular economy fund. It was launched in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK charity that is campaigning for waste and pollution to be designed out of the economy.

Buying used will reduce the impact on the environment — switching to renewable energy can only address 55 per cent of carbon emissions, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation; the remaining 45 per cent of emissions come from the production of food and consumer goods. Buying used will also force companies to diversify their revenue stream towards repair and re-use.

The last thing we can do, says Goldmark, is pass on our stuff when we no longer have use for it. She cites a New York company, Aptdeco, as a model for the future: it is a peer-to-peer website like eBay where people can post their second-hand home furnishings and decor, but the difference is the company will arrange the pickup and delivery. “We have to create systems where people can pass things on easily. How do I get this table out of my apartment into someone else’s? Especially for an urban dweller who does not have a car. Aptdeco makes it so much easier.”

Above all, Goldmark says we are going to have to get used to a world in which goods cost more, and to change our mindset that expensive equals bad — it is a false economy to buy a cheap toaster that you might have to replace three times in as many years, for example. But this is where her argument might fall down. The wealthy are able to afford a £150 toaster, but those on the breadline can’t. “Could they buy a well-made refurbished product?” muses Goldmark, who also suggests a culture of paying in instalments.

Another solution to throwaway culture could be the adoption of a rental one: just as companies rent photocopiers and have them serviced over years, homeowners could rent Nespresso machines and get them fixed as needed.

“The grassroots repair cafés are great, but limited in scale of what they can handle. The big players are not there yet. But we need to push for it.”

So, what can consumers do to stop the waste?

● Be wary of buying seamless, moulded plastic objects that look like they don’t have an inside, Goldmark advises — you will never be able to open them up to repair them. And avoid products with irregular screws rather than a Phillips cross head, as they require specialist screwdrivers for repairs.

● Avoid plastic in general — most of the irreparable objects involved defective plastic parts. “We love things made of real wood, they are easy to fix. With plastic you can’t replace the part easily, it is not easy to repaint and adhesive doesn’t work well.”

● Before you buy a digital item, check the website — they tear down products and give them a repairability score out of ten. The Fairphone 3, for example, scores a ten versus a six for an iPhone. “Fairphone is a Dutch company that makes smartphones with materials that are ethically sourced or recycled. They are designed to be repairable and in a modular way so you can upgrade parts. For example, if you want the latest and best camera instead of buying a whole new phone, you can just switch the camera — you don’t have to get rid of the whole damn phone.”

● Apply the same critical thinking when you are buying a toaster. If it only costs £9, chances are it was neither ethically produced nor easily repairable. So buy the more expensive one and email the company first to ask it for details of whether it can be repaired. “The more noise we make, the more they will change.”

● Get into the habit of buying second-hand. “These are small steps an individual can do to shift consumption patterns. What if you bought 50 per cent of your clothes used? Then expand your comfort zone into clothing, furniture, electronics, ceramics, jewellery, lamps. I have a refurbished iPhone. I have had this one for three years [Fairphone is not available in the US, but it is in the UK].”

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