Sustainability? What year is this—and where the hell am I?

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Our shiny, metallic-blue Kenmore Elite front load washer developed a leak. It’s shiny mate, the hi-tech dryer decided it wouldn’t fire up. Push the buttons, nadda. So after ripping the units apart with the help of Google and YouTube, we called in the repair guy. The rubber seal on the washer was the culprit, a broken drive belt on the dryer explained the other. His advice? Buy a new set; this set is past its ‘best before’ date.

Beautiful faces but high maintenance. 

He had other advice, too. He recommended going with a cheap set of top loaders with fewer functions. Less to go wrong. The fancy, feature-full front loaders are impossible to repair and wear out quicker. And all of them, tops, fronts, whatever, are designed to last 6 or 7 years and that’s it. Better yet, look for a 35-year-old set of Maytags, he said.

So instead of shelling out $2500 on a new set of front loaders, we went online, and found a matched pair of old Maytags in Moncton. I got in the truck and off I went. I set up the fuel consumption indicator on the dashboard computer. When I started out the gauge read 16.1 litres/100 kilometres, which is pretty appalling. But the time I got to Moncton, feathering the gas pedal, I got it down to 13 litres/100, which is about 18 miles/gallon. An improvement, I guess. But it’s absolutely no improvement over an F150 pickup from 1969.

Just like the front load washer-dryer, my truck is full of electronics. A couple of months ago a headlight bulb burned out. But after I got it replaced the lights were messed up: the headlight on one side lit up, but not on the other side. Instead, the working headlight was connected to the opposite fog light. I looked up the problem online. Apparently, the lights on this truck are wired directly to the main engine management computer, so instead of having their own circuit, they’re wired into the central brain. Back to Google. The problem was a glitch in the program. Solution: replace the main circuit board for a thousand bucks. I gave up, took it into a shop. An old electrician worked it out for less than $150.

With car sales tanking due to market saturation way back in 1924, Alfred P. Sloan, president of General Motors, borrowed a genius idea from the bicycle industry: changing styles every year to get customers to buy a new unit every year or every few years. He called it “dynamic obsolescence.” Critics called it planned obsolescence. Critics or no, the business idea caught on, and it’s been a boon to businesses operating in saturated markets ever since.

Remember that lonely Maytag repair man? If you’re younger than 50, probably not. He died when Maytag was taken over by Whirlpool Corporation. The Maytags between the 1950s to the 1980s were almost indestructible. But by the late 1980s the company’s sales were flagging, and quality metal parts were beginning to be replaced with cheaper plastic bits. And the rest, as they say, is history.

On the way back from Moncton I stopped in at the new Sobey’s grocery store in Saint John. Walking through the front door was immediate disorientation. It was unclear whether I was to go right or left; there were two sets of doors. Both looked like entrances to boutiques. I went right, and walked directly into a retail maze of baked goods, deli confections and produce. As confusing as it was, I recognized the experience immediately. It’s the IKEA merchandizing concept. Drive the customers through a dimly lit, twisting path, positioning one treat after another to entice the stunned victims to fill their baskets. Fortunately, I found my way out of the maze to find that the other half of the store was, thankfully, set out in a more traditional layout.

This idea of setting up a mood-lit maze of sequentially displayed brands is directly opposite to the Walmart-Costco model that commodifies everything in a perfectly planned warehouse setup. But that model is also disorienting in its own way. Every store across the continent is set up just like every other. Whether you’re shopping in Edmonton or Moncton, the experience is exactly identical. To the point that if you’re a traveller, you often can’t remember where the hell you are. You’re just in familiar Costcoland, and keep buying accordingly—even if you don’t have anywhere to stash all the stuff after you leave the store. So whether you’re in IKEA or Costco, it’s the same consumer carnival. Brilliant, really.

But back home there’s the problem of getting rid of all the junk that piles up. The pressure washer that works for only one season. Or the appliance that craps out in 5 years. Or the lawn furniture that needs replacing every 3 years. It’s all too much.

You’d think that by 2017, with the planet warming alarmingly and the oceans full of plastic, that we’d want a little more planned sustainability—and longevity—built into the things we make and buy. Instead, it’s like we’re living in a planned consumer dream. Which is exactly what we’re doing. 

So much for technology and the private sector saving us. Can anyone find a way out of here?

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