Innovation That Matters

Fight to repair: part three


How can we overcome our throwaway culture and instil a repair-first mindset?

This is the final part of our series on repairability with creative technologist Jude Pullen. We recommend reading part one and part two first.

So far, we have used Jude’s attempt to fix his broken headphones as the starting point for a discussion of the problems of repairability and e-waste. But what about the solutions? And what do we need to change in our mindset as consumers if we are to reduce the global mountain of waste electronics? These are the questions we address in this final article in the series.


When you ask people on the street about repairability, many have the sense that companies build things to break to boost their own bottom line. I asked Jude about this and whether he believes there is a tension between right to repair and planned obsolescence:

Often, planned obsolescence is said in the same breath as ‘ooo, ‘evil’ companies’ – as in ‘we have planned obsolescence because they want it to break in three years so then I have to buy a new one’. However, I think this is over-simplistic, as the bit that is often not acknowledged is that this is a feedback loop in which the consumer has played a massive part by going ‘I’m bored of orange, what’s the new black?’ This is a left-foot, right-foot argument. Yes, planned obsolescence, I completely agree, definitely exists, but we have to acknowledge people’s frivolity and fast-fashion mindset – ultimately these things go hand in glove.

If you watch Mad Men and dig deeper into its origins, it was Edward Bernays’s philosophy of marrying Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic methods with how to sell products that was the genesis of modern marketing as we know it. And so, things like bacon and eggs were a construct of the Danish pork industry, and women being encouraged to smoke was leveraged through the feminist movement of the Suffragettes.

To come back to the issue of planned obsolescence and production, the only way we’re really going to reduce our consumption and consumerism is if we fill the void in our emotional lives that drives our need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ in this frivolous and superficial way.

It’s easy to say that consumers need to change their mindset, but is it really credible in our throwaway culture that people will fall in love with repairing things again?

Sugru was a startup born out of the notion that most people are intimidated to fix things, but once they get over what we called the ‘first fix’, they become almost a little bit ‘born again’. This is something we actually took proper surveys on: people’s frequency of repairing stuff around the house just goes exponential as soon as they’ve done that first one. So, I’m optimistic, even if I acknowledge the uphill climb!

One of the things where I think we’ll only see it when we see it, is when companies actually start making it part of the brand love that when something fails, you go on the website and you are reassured by it saying ‘we know that bit occasionally fails – don’t worry, pay five dollars – and here’s a new bit. It’s going to arrive tomorrow and you’re going to love it. By the way, here’s a step-by-step video; it’s going to be painless.’

And if you’re thinking that that doesn’t sound like good business, I would say that there are two interesting provocations. Roughly 50 per cent of the revenues generated in the automotive industry come from selling the car, while 50 per cent comes from the parts, spares, and maintenance. That business model, albeit for petrol and diesel engines, already exists. Similarly, with IKEA, no-one in their right minds in the 1950s or earlier would have said that assembling your own furniture is somehow going to be a good feeling.

With the right marketing and the right celebrities, dare I say it, creating social nudges, we can become a society that takes a renewed pride and satisfaction in fixing something. But, of course, that is codependent on things being fixable in the first place. At the moment, if my washing machine breaks, there is no way I can fix that PCB – it’s out of my hands.

The examples of the automotive industry and IKEA are powerful and familiar. But are there any other case studies of interesting business models from less well-known companies?

The Yoto children’s player is a very interesting product because the business model is (in my opinion) not singularly dependent on selling more of those units per se – it’s dependent on selling the digital audiobooks – which have a huge margin, and are arguably more environmentally friendly. What we’re going to see, and where I’m focusing a lot, is on redefinition of not just the product but the business model so that it’s essentially not problematic.

I think Apple has a terrible problem in that it needs to sell you a phone every two years, and it doesn’t show any indication of having created a different business model that is fine with your phone lasting ten years. But with Fairphone’s Headphones Fairbuds XL, for example, when you actually look at the prices of the spares as an engineer, you go ‘wow, those are some pretty good margins.’ For example, buying a new headphone band is £17.95, but that’s probably a five-cent piece of plastic. There’s still some juicy margin there for a company that is overwhelmingly ‘doing good.’

That’s the tension that we need to work through. You don’t buy a new house because you’re tired of the walls, you buy a bucket of paint and you re-paint and re-decorate. What is the mechanistic equivalent of revitalising or zhuzhing up something so that it feels fresh and new and a little less tarnished without necessarily just chucking the whole thing out? That is going to be where different business models and different designs take place. It will be more sophisticated than the old Nokia phones simply clipping on a new exterior cover – it will need to be more nuanced than that.

Beyond these pioneers, I asked Jude whether he’s seen any examples of the big players moving towards greater repairability:

I’m seeing some interesting case studies that I think are worthy of discussion if you’re in a design, a marketing strategy, or a sales team. Bosch, for example, has created an electric screwdriver that has a lithium battery in it, where it is staggeringly easy for someone like me to take four screws out and then change the battery. The battery is well labelled, the PCB is well labelled, the connections are such that I can’t put them backwards, so it’s fool-proof. There are all these little things that make it really, really credibly repairable, but at no point on the product, the labelling, or the box does it say ‘this is a repairable product.’ The reason I think that is, is because the legal team just can’t sign it off because if you say it’s repairable, it means it’s supposedly repairable to my eight-year-old son, who’d completely stuff it up and create an electrical-chemical fire with a lithium battery! It’s not appropriate to encourage a universal claim of repairability to Joe Public. But I wish there was some sort of little symbol, like the three arrows of recycling – a pair of nerdy glasses with a screwdriver or a hammer perhaps – just saying that this is repairable for someone who’s reasonably technically proficient.

The idea of putting symbols on products to denote their level of repairability is intriguing. What might it look like at scale?

The French have created a system of repairability numbers. We could say that anything 5 and below is too difficult for Joe Public, and the reason a product doesn’t get a 6 is because the auditor doesn’t believe the public would be safe to attempt it – even with good documentation and a nice instructional video. It’s too dangerous because lithium batteries are dangerous. But you could give it a 5 because you could take it to a service shop and it’d be no problem at all – the person would have it done in 30 minutes and it wouldn’t cost you the earth. These numbers also need to correlate to a sort of tacit understanding by the public of whether they’ve bought something that is repair-shop-repairable or super easy-peasy-repairable. It’ll just take time for there to be a gestation period where people become familiar with these things, just like they are with movie certificates. It’s not a nanny-state, but don’t come running to the BBFC if your toddler cries at a ‘Rated 15’ movie, right!?

I made an earlier point about stealing, and not being original. In Hayne’s manuals they had a number of spanners out of five, and you as a user would look at it and go ‘I know deep down that I’m a three-spanner person. If it says four spanners, I should call my buddy and ask them to help me.’

It’s that interesting thing of trying to navigate that journey between a company being responsible, and the consumer essentially not creating lawsuits, whether frivolous or legitimate. It doesn’t work well if a company gets sued into bankruptcy because, essentially, they tried to do the right thing. There almost needs to be a ‘Good Samaritan’ clause. What I think is really interesting about these things is that the legislation also needs to change to recognise when there is good intent, but that consumers need to be made aware that essentially as a society we are in transition.

A case in point is that I’m looking at charity shops at the moment and asking why so many of them can’t easily sell electrical goods. One of the reasons is that it’s expensive for them to afford a PAT (Product Safety Test). But the legal liability is also problematic. Even if a product has been PAT-tested, the PAT is just an electrical test, it doesn’t mean that it’s mechanically or chemically safe! Something might have gone wrong with the previous user, which is not apparent and wasn’t picked up. Let’s say it cut someone’s hand – what is the legal ramification of those sorts of things? These are really interesting case law tests, and I hope, as part of the right to repair movement, we can actually look at our legislation and ask whether it’s actually reasonable to say, ‘Oxfam sold a valve radio for 50 quid, but actually there was a bit of broken glass and someone cut themselves.’ At one point do you have to sign the equivalent of a waiver and say I’m willing to accept the ‘sold as seen’ and ‘at my own risk’ totality of this? And if I’m not, I just shouldn’t buy it. That’s the dilemma we’re in with a lot of the repairability question. If we continue to go down the road of opportunistic litigation, then I think that repairability is dead, because any company that isn’t massive just can’t sustain the death by a thousand cuts of people trying it on.

Any closing thoughts, and actions for companies to take their first steps?

Much of what I’m seeing with companies I work with now is a significant shift from ‘how do we ask Marketing to fix this!’ to ‘how do we begin to design a project with circularity in mind from Day One?’ – this is a critical shift, and makes it much less likely that ‘greenwashing’ will occur, as no offence to marketeers, but it’s ‘too late’ to fix a bad idea with a great campaign, right?

Furthermore, I’m hearing a lot more confidence in ‘data-led decisions’. To be clear, I do not think Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) data should overrule common sense and insights. But we have to think in circular terms, beyond selling the product, to being custodians for life.

Repair is not a ‘new thing’, and many companies in the past made good profits in after-sales care… so marketers need to study history – we’ve not always been ‘single-use’, ‘throw-away’ societies. Perhaps we can see a return to the ‘joy of fixing’, as we said at Sugru, while not being ‘hair-shirt’ hippies. We can still utilise the best of progressive, profitable, yet responsible technology, in our modern, sustainable world.

Repairability is emerging as a key innovation trend. To discover the innovators who are helping to facilitate it, become a Springwise member and search our library of over 14,000 global innovations.

To watch Jude’s full nine-part investigation on The Fight to Repair, click here.

This article is an extract of a conversation between Jude Pullen and Springwise commissioning editor, Matt Hempstead. The text has been edited for length and clarity.

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