In August of 1955, Life magazine published an image of a man, woman and child cheerfully tossing in the air a bunch of sundry household items—a frozen food container, an all-purpose bucket, a sectional plate, paper napkins, a disposable diaper, a dog-feeding bowl, and an ash tray, among others. The accompanying text explained that all the items in the air would take about 40 hours to clean up but no housewife needed to bother about that any more because all the items were disposable. The piece was titled “Throwaway Living”.
Published at a time when disposable items were gaining currency in the consumer market, partly because of the proliferation of plastics, it reflected on the ethos of a newly booming industrial economy. Over the next couple of decades, this ethos would trickle down in an increasingly inter-connected world from the Global North to the Global South.
So much so that today, even in a developing nation like India, a mobile phone that is more than two years old is considered obsolete and, increasingly, consumers prefer to just buy a new device rather than repair a broken screen or a malfunctioning motherboard. Yet, hardly a generation ago, durability was the norm, household goods were used for decades, and hand-me-downs were commonplace. But even as India, particularly its aspirational middle and neo-middle class, takes to the values and trends of wealthy consumerist societies, in the West, a reversal of attitudes seem to be underway.
Sweden, for example, is considering tax breaks on repairs of clothes, bicycles, refrigerators and washing machines, hoping that this will encourage consumers to fix their things instead of throwing them away. Two schemes will be placed before the Swedish Parliament in December: One, to lower value-added tax on repair services from 25% to 12%, and another to offer income-tax deductions to consumers who repair their white goods at home. The scheme is estimated to cost the government about $54 million in lost taxes but this will be more than covered by revenue from a new tax that is being levied on harmful chemicals in white goods.
Across the pond, in the US, a similar shift towards repairing, instead of discarding, old goods, is gaining momentum. A recent report in The Wall Street Journal notes that since the recession of 2007-2008, Americans have been holding on to their cars longer. During and after the financial crisis, the average vehicle age in the US increased by 15%. Today, it is 11.6 years (while in 1969, it was 5.1 years). Expectedly, this has benefited service shops and auto-parts makers while the do-it-yourself industry for car repairs has grown to $54 billion in annual revenue.
Similarly, the tech and electronics industries, notorious for their planned obsolescence strategies (which, they argue, fuel innovation), are also moving towards a more sustainable consumption-production strategy. Electric automobile manufacturer Tesla, for example, simply downloads software upgrades to its cars, which means that owners can hold on to their “old” cars longer. Google also tried something similar with its Project Ara—a smartphone with hardware “modules” and “frames” that could be swapped, so that the entire phone wouldn’t have to be trashed for every upgrade—though the project has recently been suspended.
Within the textile industry too, there is a growing awareness of the high environmental costs of cheap and disposable fashion. Companies are being encouraged to shift focus from selling more to selling good—in terms of high-quality products that are made better, last longer and don’t leave behind a long and dirty carbon footprint. For example, Patagonia, which sells high-end outdoors clothing, now guarantees that it will repair any of its products for free over their lifetime.
There is also a mounting effort to move from a linear economy, wherein resource-intensive goods end up in landfills after a one-time use, to a circular economy, wherein products and processes are designed for reuse, refurbishment or even remanufacturing. For example, popular brands like H&M, American Eagle Outfitters, Levi Strauss, The North Face and Zara now collect old garments at their stores, which are repurposed. Interestingly, India imports large quantities of used clothing from the US, some of which is resold while the rest is pulped and recycled to make blankets, doormats, prayer rugs and pillow stuffing.
Still, apparel companies sell far larger amounts of new clothes than they recycle old ones, and have struggled to convince consumers to bring old clothes to the store. Meanwhile, the gargantuan landfills outside our cities continue to grow and the pressure on scarce natural resources intensifies. However, if the progress, even if limited, that we are seeing with the push against plastics (which is fast becoming a dirty word), is anything to go by, there is reason to hope.
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