Back for good: the fine art of repairing broken things
August 22, 2021 - The Guardian
When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1932, he portrayed a society in which the importance of discarding old clothes was whispered into the ears of sleeping children (“Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches”) – so vital was the imperative to drive consumption of the new. He set his novel 600 years into the future, but later suggested that its “horror may be upon us within a single century”. He wasn’t far off.
Product life spans are getting shorter – one UK-based fashion company advises buyers to work to quality standards that assume a dress will stay in its owner’s wardrobe for less than five weeks. And it’s not just clothes: household appliances can be cheaper to replace than repair, with spare parts often available only if harvested from retired machines. Something as simple as a depleted battery frequently spells the end for today’s hermetically sealed electronic devices, and even attempting a repair can render warranties invalid.
But a new law – the “right to repair bill” – has just come into force, aiming to end the “built to break” cycle by requiring that manufactures make spare parts and maintenance information available for their products. The intention is to overcome built-in obsolescence, enable repairs and extend lifespans. The government now expects white goods to last for up to a decade, rather than the seven-year average reported by the Whitegoods Trade Association.
But campaigners, such as the co-founder of the Restart Project, Janet Gunter, argue that the measures don’t go far enough. “This has been widely reported as ‘problem solved’, but the rules only apply to lighting, washing machines, dishwashers and fridges – and they only give spare parts and repair documentation to professionals,” she says. “We want to see ecodesign legislation applied to other hard-to-repair tech products and offer the right to repair to everyone.”
Today, artists and designers are leading the way in exploring what mending really means. They might not be offering to fix your broken toaster, but through exploring the practice of repair, they are laying the groundwork for new ways of thinking about the objects we surround ourselves with. Perhaps we can move away from the veneration of newness that is exemplified by unboxing videos on YouTube, and instead learn to celebrate the storied patina that comes with care and repair.
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