Disposing of the Disposable Society, Part 6 – Repair Versus Replacement

Replacement seems wasteful compared with repair, but is it really?  As we strive to make our stuff last ten times as long in the interest of sustainability and cost savings, will repair shops experience a resurgence?  Over the decades my unscientific eye has detected a significant decrease in the numbers of shoe repair shops, TV and appliance repair shops, and tailors, to name a few.  At first thought it would appear that we will be looking for repairs from time to time to avoid the cost (and ecological impact) of replacement.  Are repairs destined to generally remain too uneconomical to pursue?  How can we be more frugal and decrease our waste stream of discarded products?

Sometimes replacement may be more ecologically responsible than repair.  Have product quality and product design improved so much that our possessions will increasingly last much longer than they used to, and then totally fall apart as all the component pieces wear out or fail at once by design?  There would be no reason to repair something that is completely worn out, and this might be the best scenario, both cost-wise and ecologically.  It also makes sense if the environmental impact of making, managing, and shipping repair parts, along with the attendant paperwork and data handling, is substantial.   In considering this, you need to think of the ecological impact of the extra workers it will take to make the spare part available.  Cost alone may make it uneconomical to have a lot of things repaired, though.  For instance, why spend $30 to repair a pair of $50 shoes, or $400 to fix a $600 TV?  It’s a question of balance, and I can’t find good enough information to make a general prediction one way or the other.

Products requiring increased skill to repair, like personal computer software, may reduce the incentive to repair them.  Labor costs have been killing the repair market for some time.  Will economic factors such as wages rebalance so as to make repair more economical and increase the demand for repairs in the future?  Has sophisticated technology created a condition in which repair for many items requires prohibitive amounts of (high cost) skill and knowledge, or parts that cost as much or more than a complete new item, such that it will not be economical to fix many things?  Corporations often have the incentive to create or support this scenario, as their costs may make repair parts prohibitively unprofitable, or they may price repair parts higher because they make more money on selling the original item than supporting it by enabling repairs.

Quality improvement may have a negative impact on the repair business.  The pursuit of quality, which was a big deal in the 1980’s, has made a bit of a resurgence in recent years, driven perhaps more by competition than anything else.  It has been enabled by increasingly sophisticated design tools and methodologies, and corporate priorities driven in some cases by past litigation and in others by desire to reduce warranty costs, scrap rates, etc.  Engineers now have the capability to do extensive simulations of their designs and optimize component lifespans so that their products run, run, run to a ripe old age (in product years) and then quit, and are no longer worth repairing in comparison to a newer, more sophisticated, and possibly lower cost replacements.  While I think this may be a net economic positive, the reality depends on a number of variables.  To know whether long-life disposable products help us towards sustainability isn’t easy, and depends on factors including not only the product cost and lifespan, but on the impact (carbon footprint, etc.) of the product, as well as the rate of advancement of the technology.

Don’t expect the current state of the repair business to change markedly any times soon.  A seat-of-the-pants look at the situation suggests that the repair shop will not see a resurgence any time soon, though the economics may change over the next decade or two.  It may also end up that repairs will be made so simple that the owner can fix things themselves and not need a repair shop.  There will, however, always be a few people who will use repair shops for a variety of reasons, so I don’t see repair shops going away either.  At least, the few that remain today will probably continue to exist.  I was starting to think that they have minimal competition, but that is not so when you consider substitutes (including replacement) – strong substitutes are part of what drives the disposable society, and must be considered in any evaluation of “repair versus replace”.

As always, I welcome your comments.

interesting reading:
Mega-Trends in Appliance Repair, Pegi, Samurai Appliance Repair Man, applianceguru.com


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