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Friday, March 24, 2023


Planned obsolescence, future landfill, and premium-priced durability

Editors Note: This Blog captures our collective frustrations with planned obsolescence . It highlights how much of our durable goods consumption is about waste and corporate profits.

One of the things I hate most about our current world is planned obsolescence.

There’s a “wmtc’s greatest hits” long piece unpacking planned obsolescence, as it relates to capitalism and our deteriorating environment: “we work to buy things that are built to die so that we must work to buy more things that will break“. (This post sparked an interesting long discussion, now lost to the ether.)

When we look at the cost of basic living now, compared with our parents’ or grandparents’ generations — home internet, computers, mobile phones, etc. — we need to include this. We buy and re-buy, over and over, items that our parents may have replaced once in their lifetimes, if at all.

And the life cycle of products continue to shrink. Things we bought when we first moved to Canada in 2005 lasted longer than the same items purchased in 2015. We once bought a can opener that was literally single-use. A coffee grinder that I used five times before it broke. And on and on.

Wmtc readers had another good discussion about this after I bought an extremely expensive office chair. Talk about privilege! I was embarrassed to spend almost $1,000 on a chair. The alternative, however, was spending $200-300 for a chair that would fall apart in less than two years. My expensive chair, purchased in 2009, is still like new in 2022.

This kind of buying is a privilege, only feasible for those with discretionary income or credit. Folks with less income end up buying crap because it’s all they can afford — another form of the cost of poverty.

Planned obsolescence preys on bargain hunters. The quest to wring maximum use from every dollar actually means spending more in the long run.

Planned obsolescence keeps people in debt, or in poverty, or prevents them from living a better life with greater comforts and supports.

Planned obsolescence is killing our planet. The Earth is filling up with phones, and computers, and appliances, and plastic toys, everything else that we buy, and re-buy, and re-buy.

I think about this all the time, but most recently it’s on my mind because our washing machine broke.

The Whirlpool washer that was in our home when we bought it suddenly stopped spinning. The one appliance repair person in our little town is away for an extended period of time. Through some intense sleuthing, I found a repair person in the next town, about 45 minutes away — but he doesn’t make service calls.*

We disconnected the washer, loaded it into the car, and drove to Port McNeill. The following day, Repair Person called: it can’t be fixed. The part that broke isn’t available, as the breakdown of this part signals the end of the machine. By tracing the serial number, he learned that the washer was manufactured seven years ago — and that is the full lifespan of the machine.

Seven years? For a washer?? That is ludicrous.

Now we had to drive back to Port McNeill, pick up the faulty washer, and re-install it. We would use a lot of electricity drying sopping wet clothes, but at least we’d have something in the interim. Envisioning our hydro bills would be a great incentive to buy a new washer, pronto.

As I started to research, I saw that almost every washer had only a one-year warranty. Hmmm.

Repair Person recommended we look into Huebsch, sold in the US as Speed Queen. They manufacture washers for laundromats and hotels, and also they have a few consumer models, which are built to the same specs as the commercial machines. Repair Person doesn’t sell appliances or earn commissions. He said, “If you can afford it, it will last the rest of your life.”

I investigated. Huebsch washers and dryers cost about twice as much as standard consumer models from Whirlpool, LG, Samsung, and most other household brands. They are supposed to last decades, rather than years. There are only two authorized Huebsch dealers in the province, and amazingly, one is in Port McNeill!

I’m not thrilled at the expense, but to us this is a no-brainer. What’s the point of spending $600 or $800 on a washer that will last less than 10 years?

My only hesitation was that the capacity of these washers is much smaller than those of the popular brands: 3.2 cubic feet, compared with 5 cubic feet or higher. Here’s what I’ve learned. The other companies have competed to offer more and more capacity — without improving the internal works. The motors of these large-capacity machines can’t handle the loads, so the machines are destined to break down quickly. Huebsch has avoided this by sticking with the old-fashioned 3.2 capacity.

I wasn’t completely sure that the Huebsch could accommodate our largest item, which would be a queen-sized comforter. I read online that 3.2 cubic feet was enough for a queen comforter — but I couldn’t take a chance. There’s no dry cleaner in our area, so if I couldn’t wash a blanket — including old blankets that certain dogs like to snuggle in — I’d be out of luck. So just to be sure, we brought a (fur-free) blanket with us to try. It fit. End of story.

This is how we ended up spending $1,750 — tax and delivery putting us at about $2,200 — on a washer. According to everyone, it will run smoothly for at least 25 years.

I’m fortunate, I’m privileged, we can handle this. But it is so wrong.

* Repair Person is disabled, and I’m guessing that only working out of his shop eliminates accessibility concerns. I didn’t know this until we met him. It was great to see a wheelchair-user running his own business — and he’s quite senior, too. He sells mobility scooters and repairs computers, too. And in the summer lives on his boat. In my old writing life, this guy would make a great story.

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