Finding a really tough leather belt or iron pan is one thing - but often the stuff we want to last us is a little more complex than that. It’s generally accepted that electrical goods, from smartphones to washing machines, have a limited lifespan. But it seems to be that despite advancements in technology, new electronics give up the ghost more and more quickly.
Is this the result of tech companies employing shady manufacturing practices to keep us in a cycle of consumption? Or is it simply in the nature of electrical goods to eventually fail?
Let’s break down the reasons why electricals seem increasingly short-lived - and discuss how we can find ones that will go the distance.
Why don’t they ‘make things like they used to’?
A victim of cost-cutting, built-in obsolescence or consumer culture?
This old adage seems to come up whenever we get talking about long-lived electricals. Many will remember a time when washing machines lasted decades, whereas now it’s not unusual for one to need fixing after just a couple of years. Are we getting our money’s worth nowadays?
It should be pointed out that 40 years ago, a washing machine would have cost the equivalent of a month’s pay packet - a significant investment for most households. But today, a whole host of products previously considered luxuries are now cheaply available to all. You can purchase a washing machine for less than $400 now, and for $20 can get you a toaster, electric kettle, hand blender or even a fitness tracker.
While affordable prices have democratized ownership of goods both essential and frivolous, it has also resulted in a ‘race to the bottom’ between manufacturers to produce the cheapest products on the market.
This competitive cost-cutting has been achieved mainly by outsourcing low-cost production around the globe, but other factors such as cheaper, lighter materials play a big part too. All this usually comes at the expense of build quality and robustness.
Is this planned obsolescence?
Are manufacturers manipulating products’ short lifespans?
Planned obsolescence refers to purposefully designing things to have a limited lifespan. It stands to reason that forcing customers into repeat purchases will drive more sales than selling them one thing that lasts forever. But it can be hard to tell whether a product has been designed to fail, or simply not made robustly.
It’s certainly the case that when one company or group has a monopoly on a product, they can control consumers’ expectations of how long that product should last. This happened when the Phoebus Cartel conspired to reduce the lifespan of lightbulbs in the 1920s, in order to drive repeat sales.
But the fact is, the vast majority of electricals nowadays are sold in a competitive market. Even if forcing your customers to buy more often sounds lucrative, gaining a reputation for unreliable goods isn’t a good business strategy when you’re up against stiff competition. Most of the time, flimsier products are just a direct result of cost-cutting - ultimately caused by consumer demand.
Repair or replace?
Products that are designed to be taken apart, like these repairable Minirig Bluetooth speakers, are a rarity nowadays.
There’s another thing causing our electronics to head for the bin prematurely: the fact we don’t repair them. As the devices we own get more complex, fixing them gets harder and more costly. Alongside falling prices, consumers opting to replace instead of repair is an inevitability.
Manufacturers have a lot to answer for. A common feature in modern electricals is parts being glued or welded together, whereas before they might be held together with screws or bolts. This might save bulk, weight, or manufacturing costs, but makes a repair down the line far more difficult.
On top of this, manufacturers aren’t helping third parties repair their goods any more. Cheap spare parts and accessible repair manuals used to be commonplace for many appliances, even old models, but this is gradually disappearing. Some electronics, such as Apple devices, are even specifically designed to prevent third party repairs.
If we don’t need new stuff, are we made to want it?
Maybe my phone does need three cameras...
Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be right to say that consumers are forced to buy shiny new things, just because we can’t fix them. If planned obsolescence is the practice of designing products to break, perceived obsolescence refers to products becoming obsolete in our minds - before they break at all.
The electronics industry moves at breakneck speed, and developing new features to sell can make the old models left behind instantly less appealing. For example, excellent-quality headphones have been available to us since the eighties, but technologies such as Bluetooth and noise cancelling keep the new models coming.
When you start to put it all together, it becomes clear that designing goods to break isn’t at all necessary to drive consumption. When perceived obsolescence combines with barriers to repair and the affordability of new goods, it’s easy to see why long-lasting electronics are a rarity.
What we look for
We want electricals we can rely on - like these armored charging cables that will never split or fray.
A rarity, but thankfully not extinct. Whilst the implications of our rapid pace of consumption might be looking bleak, there will always be companies out there striving to make better products with longer lifespans.
Here are some things we look for in electronics. You might not find something that ticks every box, but they’re all promising indicators of longevity. Whether you’re looking for a smartwatch, an iron or a TV, keep an eye out for companies who look out for you years down the line - not just at the point of sale.
We’re big fans of companies putting their money where their mouths are. A decent warranty, especially one that’s ahead of the competition, is a great indicator of quality. Always check the terms - does that mean free repairs? No-quibble replacement? Does it cover everyday wear and tear?
A good warranty is inextricably linked to customer service. We want to find companies who genuinely want their products to have a long useful life - who will value their long-term customers instead of being at odds with them. Check the reviews of any company you buy from, and look for people who’ve dealt with them years after the point of purchase.
If these modular headphones break, you can just change out the broken part.
Electricals that are designed for disassembly are increasingly rare. With a little research, you may be able to find out whether spare parts are available, or whether the company offers affordable in-house repairs. This will of course vary greatly depending on what you’re buying.
Modular electricals are a great indication of repairability, meaning you can change out or upgrade parts yourself without discarding the whole device.
Many electrical devices are getting slimmer, lighter and more delicate these days. But if you’re willing to have something a little more robust, it could end up going the distance far longer. It’s generally sensible to choose the tougher-looking option over something that looks a little too sleek. Look for testing credentials too that indicate features such as water resistance.
These repairable Dualit toasters have a clunky mechanical timer and a lever to lift your toast instead of a ‘pop’ button (which is prone to break).
We tend to look for products that are manual and mechanical, because they have fewer elements to go wrong. Although you can’t apply this philosophy to every device in your life (unless you want to live in the Dark Ages), low-tech machines tend to be more reliable - and more repairable.
For instance, rechargeable batteries always have a finite lifespan, eventually wearing out. Weighing this up (versus the value of an enhanced user experience) is something to consider when choosing between a cordless or plug-in vacuum cleaner, for instance.
Stepping away from the brands you’re familiar with can feel like a risk, but it’s apparent that the bigger they get, the more corporations struggle to provide a personal customer service experience. Smaller companies are more nimble, so can afford to provide longer warranties and good repair services.
When purchasing electronics, we know that it’s not always about finding the most indestructible bit of kit on offer, but the one that’s right for you. As with any product, if it’s going to last you a long time, you’ll have to love it, keep it, repair it and carry on using it - for years. That means first considering the features you need and what’s important to you.
Electricals don’t last forever - but we need to do better by them. With France rolling out a Repairability Index and the Right to Repair movement gathering steam worldwide, we hope we’re heading towards better consumer empowerment.
But in the meantime, our choices make a difference. If we can start thinking more about longevity, and support companies who take product stewardship seriously, we think we’ll be on the right track.