“It’s time to take back control of what we own”
Modern life is defined by our electrical equipment – from smartphones and laptops to washing machines and vacuum cleaners.
But disposing of these items also represents one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the world. More than 50 million metric tons of e-waste are generated globally every year. That’s about 7kg of e-waste per person.
Each discarded piece of equipment exacts an environmental cost to the planet, whether it’s through wasting the precious resources used to manufacture it, or the ‘embodied’ CO2 emissions from mining, processing, manufacturing and transportation.
There’s clearly a strong case for repairing and reusing, so why don’t we do it more often? “Because companies have made it so hard for customers to fix things,” says Naughton.
“I have a beautiful old iPod Classic, one of the original ones. It’s my favourite thing; it has all my songs on it. When the battery died, that was effectively the end of it because I couldn’t open the device. I could get a new iPod but I couldn’t repair the one I wanted to keep. Apple is an astute practitioner of planned obsolescence as a way of nudging people towards the upgrade.”
Planned obsolescence is a marketing strategy that’s been around since the 1950s. It describes the practice of building end-of life into a product so that people are forced to replace it with another. Items are factory-sealed or their replacement parts are impossible to source. How many times have we tried to repair something to be faced with the advice that it will cost more to repair than to buy another?
It seems that manufacturers exert power over our devices long after we buy them.
“Take John Deere tractors,” says Naughton. “These are very sophisticated, electronically controlled machines. You can’t ask your local garage to service or repair the tractor without invalidating your warranty. These tractors are no longer purely mechanical devices, they depend on their electronic control units, and only John Deere has access to the computer code. Farmers would have to hack their own tractors to get through the digital locks.”
“You think you own your tractor? Actually, you don't. You think you own your iPhone? Well no. There’s an invisible thread that goes from your iPhone to where Apple is.”
In June last year, Naughton wrote in his regular column in The Observer of “one of the few pieces of cheery news to emerge from the war in Ukraine“ when Russian looters stole 27 pieces of John Deere farm equipment from a dealership in Melitopol and shipped them to Chechnya. “Their shiny new vehicles had, overnight, become the world’s heaviest paperweights: the dealership from which they had been stolen had ‘bricked’ them remotely, using an inbuilt ‘kill-switch’.”
To fix his dead iPod, Naughton found a website with free ‘how-to’ instructions and, with the help of his grandson, took it apart and replaced the battery. "This wonderful object was restored to life.”