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What a Swede idea!

26 September 2016

I've written a few columns here lamenting the rise of the "throw-away" culture versus the "fix it" culture of a few decades ago.

Even Kiwis, who were once famous for being able to repair anything using little more than a hammer and a length of number-eight wire, have become captured by the new model of upgrade and discard.

Whether it's a TV set, a mobile phone or an electric kettle... nobody really bothers fixing stuff any more and even when it's returned to a supplier under warranty, chances are that they'll eventually just toss the faulty unit and give you a brand new replacement. In fact, this is exactly what happened with the washing machine I wrote about last week.

Of course we all know that this creates an incredibly wasteful situation where huge amounts of raw materials must either be recycled or tossed in a landslide. Just as bad, the once significant industries which revolved around repairing rather than replacing stuff have all but vanished -- their work effectively being exported to China in the form of cheap replacement appliances and devices.

This "upgrade and replace" culture has spread around the world and has now been embraced by virtually every western nation. However, it would appear that at least one country is about to try and turn back the clock.

According to this report from The Guardian, Sweden is about to introduce tax breaks that might help, once again, make it more economic to repair rather than replace.

Now while I'm sure their heart is in the right place, I'm strongly opposed to anything that creates a more complex tax environment and I'm also dubious that a few percent less sales tax on a repair will be enough to change the culture and economics of fixing stuff.

However, maybe the fact that you can claim a tax credit for up to half of the labour costs of a repair will be enough -- I really don't know.

I can see why the Swedes have structured the tax credits in this way -- if they simply allowed the total cost of a "repair" invoice to qualify for a lower tax than the cost of a "sales" invoice, there'd be huge potential for gaming the system.

"What's that Sir, your $12 electric kettle is broken... well bring it in and we will repair it for $12.50 and you can claim back the tax" -- for example.

The problem I see with the Swedish proposal is perhaps not that it won't make repairs economic so much as the fact that much of today's stuff simply isn't designed to be repaired in the first place.

If there are no spare parts available or, like many small form-factor electronic devices, the damned things are glued shut such that any attempt to get inside will simply cause more damage, then repairs will never be economical at any rate of tax.

It would be so nice to see the "repairable" option return to modern "stuff". Hell, I'd probably put up with an inferior form-factor and maybe even a higher price if I was able to buy things that could be repaired rather than replaced. There's something nice about being able to keep stuff going forever -- like that old axe which has been handed down through the generations :-)

Sadly, until we're able to wean ourselves off the belief that marketers have instilled in us that last year's computer is too slow, last year's phone simply isn't stylish enough, and an electric kettle is doing very well if it lasts more than 12 months -- we'll never reinvent the repairable appliance or device.


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