Recently we broke the glass carafe on our drip coffee maker. Yes I know it’s very last-century, but I still like drip coffee. A search on line revealed that that model was no longer manufactured, even though the basic design has been stable for decades. The carafe of a related (read “different-shaped”) model cost about $35, excluding the hassle of ordering and delivery. The local shop had a whole new coffee maker for about $40. So of course we threw away the perfectly good old model, sans carafe, and got the new one.
Many years ago in America I bought a pump for a Sears-Roebuck washing machine that would have been a good quarter-century old. The new pump fit easily and the machine continued its long service. Sears-Roebuck went bankrupt some years ago.
In Australia, Fletcher-Jones and Staff not only gave all its staff actual shares in the company, it made clothes to last. It also went bankrupt many years ago. Now the reconstructed FJs and Sears sell throw-away products like everyone else.
Obviously throwing out reparable goods is wasteful. It would be far better if spare parts and repairs were expected, easy and therefore cheaper. But profits are higher the wasteful way, at least when no-one has to pay the real costs of our present industrial system, in which materials are extracted, used once and dumped.
As was observed in these pages recently, many of us compost our veggie scraps and put our recyclables in the yellow bin. But that small diligence is swamped by all the waste we make, at increasing rates.
This is a bit strange, when you think about it, because most economists obsess about efficiency, of a certain kind. Yet most economists spend their days justifying or tolerating a system that is the most monumentally wasteful in human history. It is so wasteful it is steadily destroying the planet upon whose health our lives depend. Economists also claim to be rational, but that doesn’t seem much like rational behaviour.
The imperative of consumer capitalism is that we should all make, sell and buy ever more stuff at ever more frantic rates. It is the reason why I couldn’t easily buy a replacement part for a kitchen appliance. It is the reason why companies that are less wasteful tend to go bankrupt, out-competed by the wasteful companies.
Economists generally allow that markets sometimes don’t work well, but imagine that mostly they do. Like the global financial crisis, a planet-destroying market malfunction ought to totally discredit free-market economics. Markets left to themselves frequently malfunction. They need to be managed to get them to do what we want.
So what to do? Regulations are cumbersome and can’t keep up with rapidly changing products and processes. Well-designed financial incentives and penalties might induce somewhat better behaviour, and there may be a place for them.
However a simple shift has the potential to reverse manufacturers’ incentives. Instead of selling me a coffee maker, the manufacturer could offer me a domestic coffee-making service, which it delivers by providing a working coffee maker. The company retains ownership of the device, which effectively I lease. If a part breaks it replaces the part. If some of the machine wears out, it replaces the machine.
By operating in this way, the company has the incentive to make its coffee machines durable and easy to repair. It would not change the shape of its machines every two years. If it is smart it will design the machines so they can readily be disassembled and re-manufactured, thus minimising the need to purchase new materials.
You might think no company could operate this way, because the expense would be crippling. However the billion-dollar US carpet manufacturer Interface Inc. switched to this mode of doing business in the 1990s and its profit increased. Materials were redesigned to be durable and recyclable and its waste was reduced by a factor of thirty.
Germany has for some time required its car manufacturers to take back worn-out cars and re-manufacture the parts and materials into new cars. They have extensively redesigned their cars, reducing the variety of alloys and plastics to make them easier to recover and re-manufacture. Germany is resource-poor, so this approach reduces its dependence on foreign markets.
So you see the mountains of waste we generate at present are not inevitable. By making a strategic change in how business is done our productive businesses can thrive without trashing the planet.
There are other changes that would also reduce waste and other harmful side effects, such as vesting ownership more with customers and employees, and more locally, so the people running the business care about its total contribution to society.
We need to think more outside the square. Or perhaps we could just be less parochial, and see what clever things are being done in other parts of the world. Our grandchildren would thank us for it.