Kyle and Luke began taking apart computers and other equipment, getting around the copyright protection by creating their own service manuals from scratch, and posting them online for free. The pair called their site iFixit.com and over the past decade, they have expanded to hundreds more manuals, encouraging home hackers to create their own manuals for the site – “we’re a Wikipedia of service manuals” – and they also sell the tools and spare parts users need to fix their own electrical devices.
They are contributing to a cultural shift in perception, Kyle says. “When someone has repaired their broken iPad or whatever, it’s a life-changing experience. That person will become a different consumer. They will choose new products based on how long-lasting they are and how easy they are to take apart and repair.”
At the moment, there is little onus on manufacturers to improve, and indeed things may be getting worse. As Apple’s beautiful-looking and increasingly thin gadgets take an ever-larger share of the market, other manufacturers are following suit. Motorola and Nokia, both of which were known for their durable phones with easily replaced long-lasting batteries, have now both released thin phones with glued-in batteries.
But some companies have been bucking the trend. HP and Dell release service manuals and make computers that are easily upgradable and repairable – iFixit.com recently gave HPs Z1 model a score of 10 out of 10 for repairability.
And other companies are joining the move towards a circular economy, in which economic growth is uncoupled from finite-resource-use. Instead of the linear manufacturing route: mining materials, fabricating, selling, throwing them away; a circular economy is based around making products that are more easily disassembled, so that the resources can be recovered and used to make new products, keeping them in circulation. British yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur is a strong advocate of the concept and commissioned a report into the idea, which found that the benefits to Europe’s economy alone could be $630 billion, based on cycling just 15% of materials in 48% of manufacturing and just being recycled once.
The high-end outdoors clothing company Patagonia, for example, issues a guarantee that it will repair any of its products for free over their lifetime, and employs a team of seamstresses to do just that. And in 2011, it actually ran an advertising campaign asking consumers to buy less of the stuff they don’t need, to curb waste and environmental damage.
As mines become depleted, it could soon force the market to change its recent ways. During the course of the 20th century there was a steady fall in the price of commodities, but that price has been climbing since 2000. “We’re moving towards a resource-limited economy, which means manufacturers are going to have to move their business model towards remanufacturing and repairs, as the cost of rare earth metals and other resources slash profits,” Kyle says. Perhaps, then, planned obsolescence will begin to reach its own expiration date.