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Useful And Fantastic: A Stitch In Time...

"Much of what the West throws out into landfill only needs mending - and what a lot of carbon emissions and non-renewable resources could then be saved. Many forests might not need to be cut down,'' writes Val Yule.

The reasons against making repairs are a gamut of political, economic, social and personal issues.

A letter in the New Scientist stated that repairing goods is not possible because computers, for example, continually advance in technology, and all that is obsolete must be thrown away. Indeed, electronic goods take up increasing landfill, despite the dangers of seepage and loss of valuable components.

However, everything else we use is not continually improving and upgrading and therefore it makes sense to repair or renovate. Look around at all the hard rubbish and weekly rubbish that is thrown out because it cannot be repaired - furniture, furnishings, bedding, kitchenware, clothing, shoes, tools, toys and all types of gear. Cars, machinery and homes can all be regarded as not worth renovating.

So why is not possible to repair things that would still be useful?

Politicians are unable to advocate repairing for political reasons. Replies from their correspondence show they have to tread carefully even when it comes to advocating cutting the production of waste. Protecting existing jobs is politically safer than advocating new ones that have no popular appeal. Carbon trading offers profits and jobs in the business of trading, administration and organising of “offsets”. Carbon sequestration may offer profits to farmers from what they farm or incentives to stop farming. But repairing goods has profit problems.

To be profitable, repairing items has to be less expensive than buying new goods, but with cheap labour in developing countries, and the speed of mass production contrasted with the slower business of making individual repairs, purchasing new goods is usually cheaper, especially in countries like Australia with our wage rates. Hence more landfill.

Middlemen cannot make a living from organising repairs as they can from distributing and retailing new goods. And what would happen to fashion designers, if they adapted their collections so clothing became more durable? It is mostly individuals with small businesses in shopping centres who repair shoes and garments, and small firms of tradesmen who make home repairs. Renovations that are bigger business tend to discard the old kitchens and bathrooms and replace them with new.

We are now a society that values the new more than the old for many reasons but with some serious consequences. For example, I cannot donate a set of the unique old treasury of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia to any school or library, because “We only stock NEW books” and “We haven’t the space”, and “The Internet supersedes books”. To be valued antiques must be at least two generations old, while the intervening generation throws away most of what would have become our future antiques.
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Our lifestyle is increasingly homogenised by globalisation. We expect everything to look like new. The variety that spices life is achieved with continual newness, not the joys of diversity. People with boring lives get novelty experiences through shopping and new possessions. Yet doing other things could make their lives less boring.

In the past we had more repairable clothes and furnishings. I am glad that socks are not worth darning any more, but I miss sheets strong enough to be worth turning sides to middle, gussets to let out children’s clothes for growing, shirts worth buying with extra collars, underwear that could have the elastic replaced, tweeds that could have patched elbows, and mendable chair covers. Quality is worth repairing, while cheap and shoddy is not.

“Handing down” clothes in some places is regarded as degrading for the child, although still there are families where inheritance can be a source of pride. Our three-year-old once met a bishop at the door by lifting his jersey like Nicky Winmar, to show “I’m wearing Timmy’s ‘linglet’!”

Understandably, it is middle-class people who often take a sort of pride in being clad from the op-shop: for them it is an option, not a necessity as it is for the poor.

Spare parts for appliances and cars are now unprofitable to keep in store for more than a few years because there are so many models, constantly changing. Even the same firm will produce several versions of the same model with hardly any useful differences, but it means there can be problems with repairability.

It is mostly not yet profitable for manufacturers to co-operate in making products similar enough to be able to be mended or have parts replaced with the same spares. We don’t have standard series of glass jars or bottles enabling re-use by different firms, rather than re-cycled into glass to make new containers. The old Milk Bottles Recovery Limited was a real “green” business. We don’t even have a standard range of window envelopes to enable envelopes to be re-used again and again. However, on the positive side, we have progressed from the time when even into the 1960s in UK, every power point in a house might require a different sort of plug, and today the same types of batteries can be used for most equipment requiring them.

“Conspicuous consumption” was how the rich leisure classes showed off, according to the sociologist Thorstein Veblen. In medieval times, there were laws to prevent the lower classes doing it. Today all classes may feel they have to consume conspicuously to be socially respectable. Yet we can enjoy our new purchases more when it is not something that we do everyday, and as well, we can enjoy the pleasures of the familiar things that are old.

We have a crisis of human energy. People often say or feel “I wouldn’t have the patience” for many things that need to be done. Repairing is one of the things that take time and energy, although less than people think. “A stitch in time” or a button sewn on again saves money as well as preventing waste.
It should be possible to create jobs in “repairs industries”, in a society of users rather than consumers, as the cost of “new” increases. This would help to “save the planet”, by cutting pollution caused by production, by using less resources, growing less environmentally risky crops such as cotton, and by taking up less landfill. We now take great trouble to repair our selves, with advances in medical technology. There could be advances in the technologies of mending, and in repairing the earth as well.

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