Our grandparents’ appliances were so sturdy and seemingly indestructible. Ours? Not so much. What happened? Appliances seem so delicate now. Why do older appliances last longer?
- Are Appliances Designed to Fail?
- How to Make Your Appliances Last Longer?
- Building a Circular Economy
Newer appliances seem to break more quickly and easily than the sturdy alliances made decades ago. I find myself researching new appliances to buy every two to three years, and it’s not just a waste of money, it’s also a waste of precious resources. When we find ourselves needing to buy a new washing machine every few years, there’s something seriously wrong.
Are Appliances Designed to Fail?
Why are modern refrigerators so unreliable? Have they been built to last or built to fail? What has changed? We’ve all heard of built-in obsolescence. But even before that practice entered the industry, a lot of things were changing.
1 / Changes in the Manufacturing Landscape
Back in the late-1980s, and increasingly through the Nineties, manufacturers in the US and Europe began outsourcing in order to maximize efficiency and minimize costs. Manufacturing was outsourced to far-off countries in Asia, and companies designed the products to be lightweight – so as to minimize the necessary shipping costs. All of these moves led to appliances being made with plastic components (reducing weight) and looser quality control (reducing durability).
Consistency of appliance performance has also taken a hit. Companies use various different factories and suppliers for different products, at different times. Phew. So, it’s very complicated to do an apple-to-apple comparison of different models of the same product. A Whirlpool washing machine made in 2010 is different from the same model made in 2020.
2 / Changes in Technology
On the plus side, advances in technology over the decades have brought us more energy-efficient appliances, which, again, translate to lower running costs. Newer washing machines and dishwashers, for instance, use less water to do the same amount of work.
Meanwhile, electronic components have reduced the weight and increased the efficiency of appliances. But the electronic parts have also made it harder to “fix” an appliance. If an electronic component is damaged or broken, consumers are usually advised to buy an entirely new appliance.
3 / Changes in Business Strategies
Now, enter built-in obsolescence, aka planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence, most common in the consumer goods industry, is the practice of designing short-lived products, to deliberately limit their lifespan and encourage frequent replacement. Manufacturers incorporate an “artificially limited useful life or a purposely frail design, so that it becomes obsolete after a certain predetermined period of time upon which it decrementally functions or suddenly ceases to function, or might be perceived as unfashionable” [Wikipedia]. This is done with a keen eye on profits, and a complete disregard for the environment, for workers wellbeing, and for consumer rights.
Four ways in which planned obsolescence is executed are contrived durability, software updates, perceived obsolescence, and prevention of repair. Are Apple software updates and slowed down iPhones a good example? Yes. So are “unrepairable” consumer electronics and appliances, including refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, etc. Us consumers are constantly told to buy goods that have been designed to last for only a few years. When discarded, the “unrepairable” items are dumped in a landfill, and lie there in utter waste.
How to Make Your Appliances Last Longer?
Firstly, don’t fall for FOMO advertising. Our consumer-driven economy requires us to buy, buy, buy new items all the time. But now that we know how insidious the manufacturers are, and how ghastly the consequences are for the environment (and our wallets), let’s pause, take a deep breath, and do things differently (and incorporate the ideas of the circular economy in our everyday lives).
1 / Buy durable secondhand products
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with older, refurbished products that still work well. As a bonus, you get to save money (because they’re cheaper than brand new items), and also help drive sales away from brands that thrive on planned obsolescence.
The number one tip on this blog has always been to buy and use already existing products. Secondhand, pre-loved, refurbished. Participate in the sharing economy if you can, and utilize local garage sales to get what you need!
2 / Buy products from responsible manufacturers
Of course, you’re not going to always get exactly what you need in a secondhand store. In this case, there’s no choice but to buy new. But try to buy from brands that value things like sustainable manufacturing, ethical sourcing, and fair trade practices. Buy products that have been built to last for as long as possible, products that are locally manufactured and/or have spare parts available. Look for brands that help you recycle and/or safely dispose of products, and offer extended warranties.
Companies such as Miele, Sub-Zero & Wolf, and Speed Queen offer products that are specifically designed to last. This makes their products more expensive, but that evens out over the long term. Refer to websites like Durability Matters for more brand recommendations, buying guides, and product reviews.
3 / Maintain products well
Whatever appliances you have currently, follow best practices to make them last longer and maintain them in good condition. Good maintenance goes a long way in lengthening the lifespan of any appliance.
If you need to repair an appliance, try to find a repairman who will help you fix the issue instead of throwing up his hands and telling you to toss out the old one and buy a new (“the latest model”) one. You could even pick up basic skills (and spare parts) from resources such as Family Handyman and Repair Clinic.
Building a Circular Economy
We maintain that there are enough appliances, clothes, accessories, cars, homes, etc., to suffice for everyone. We don’t need to mine virgin resources to manufacture new items for a long time. But companies need to make obscene profits and the economy needs to chug along. Or something. At what cost, though?
We need to switch to a circular economy ASAP, where manufacturing is sustainable and driven by demand, consumers are encouraged to buy secondhand, and where electronic products are recycled and upcycled (or responsibly disposed of) at the end of their life cycle.
Also, planned obsolescence is currently not illegal, but should be. It needs to be exposed as the corporate environmental crime that it is.
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NOTE: All brand photographs belong to the respective brands/businesses.
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