The great spare parts drought

Rule 3 of the Norwegian environmental code is to “Fix Everything, Always.” I have been trying to fix as much as possible of my things where possible before considering replacing them. It isn’t stated, but also should really apply to preventative maintenance too.

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Some things will be fixed by the producer (particularly those products made by reputable manufacturers). In recent months the zip on my 7 year old rainjacket has started opening up below the zipper. Very annoying. Took it recently to the retailer and they replaced the zipper for free in a few minutes whilst I waited. Fantastic. Good as new! Well until I washed it with something (at the recommendation of the retailer!) which caused it to fade a bit pink like the guy’s jacket in the photo above. I think the bike grease marks looked better than the new colour, but at least I’ll fit in next to him on my next ski trip.

But certain things are much harder to find.

I have bicycle panniers on my bike that I use nearly every time I am out riding to take lunch in, groceries or just in case. Just before winter last year the main buckle closing the bicycle pannier from the elements broke on both panniers. I went on a hunt through sport, bicycle and travel shops in the city to see if I could find something similar that would replace it. Surprisingly few shops offered any kind of spare buckles (regardless of purpose) – and none were of the strap width I needed (about 2cm).

I was forced into internet shopping. It’s a shame. The last internet purchases I can remember making are all for repairs: a watch strap, 2 pannier buckles, a drill battery, a phone battery and a phone cover. Because I have had difficulty to find such items locally.

I was previously quite a fan of internet purchases – and one of my first ever jobs was in e-commerce. I didn’t make purchases super frequently but I could happily buy lots of things there that I could have found in a brick and mortar shop. But after watching Inequality for All at the recommendation of a friend I’ve gone more or less completely away from e-shopping. That and I had a few dud purchases like a sleeping bag that only zipped 1/4 of the way down and some shoes that were too narrow… See the trailer below, the full length movie can be found on Youtube too.

The spare parts sector (at least in Norway) seems to be very thinly spread or non-existent in physical stores for quite common items. A baffling finding of mine recently was that windscreen wiper refills (just the rubber bit that falls apart – not the whole blade) basically aren’t sold in Norway! Instead the whole blade structure had to be bought.

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It’s nuts. That suitcase with the dodgy wheel but is otherwise perfect – just chuck it. The backpack buckle you stepped on – good luck finding a replacement in town! But in informal economies such items are commonplace. I have seen watch repairmen in Malaysia who can find you a matching strap in no time. A mobile suitcase wheel repairer at a Delhi train station – 5 minutes and you’re sorted again.

I can happily pay in situations where a salesman would think “why bother, just buy a new one.” Why bother? Because it’s not natural (despite what many marketers would like you believe) to throw away something with a slight or repairable fault. This is not some sustainability mindset from Gen Y either. Our parents and grandparents would be horrified to see us throwing away functional and near-functional items like there’s no tomorrow. They kept broken items as spare parts at home, went to the local cobbler when their shoes were broken and got holes in clothing repaired.

Why the change? Well we may well be better off economically than our forebears. But the perpetual growth-focussed economic system, the marketing machines behind the latest iPhone, and acceptability of planned obsolescence in our purchases has to a large extent created our enormous drive for consumer goods.

Interestingly there’s a Norwegian saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” I am curious to know whether this is part of the reason for Norway topping the European personal consumption statistics.

Thankfully there is some recognition of this problem. Internet shopping may remain the dominant player in the spare parts drought we are witnessing, but at least there are no shortage of good examples. Friends of the Earth fix-it workshops where we can learn how to repair things, the similar repair cafe movementMakerfaire events celebrating DIY culture, Instructables and ifixit (a fantastic DIY repair resource) with near endless suggestions of how to make and tinker with stuff, campaigns promoting us to take care of what we already have, tool libraries so we don’t have to buy that specialised doorknob belt-sander and even free cargo bike sharing (to help you move impractically sized objects and tools around without needing a car).

 

 

 

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One thought on “The great spare parts drought

  1. Very thoughtful article Ray and exactly mirrors my day today. I spent 4 hours looking for a shop to repair my headphones – I stumbled across a repair cafe and it was a gem of a find – I learned how to fix my headphones, I met really friendly people and I now have somewhere to go to learn how to fix things. I still have to resort to online though for certain things – but thanks for sharing the inequality documentary! Will watch soon!

    Like

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