One of the more odd inspirations for a round of radio interviews came yesterday from the Queen Mother’s fridge. Not its contents — I was not at a garden party — but the appliance itself. Apparently it is 62 years old and still going strong.
Cue media stories about things not lasting any more.
The first thing that sprang to mind was Trigger’s broom from Only Fools and Horses. Is this really the same fridge? Or just a 62 year old shell inside which all the primary components have been replaced. We shall never know.
Assume it is the original fridge though. Can you buy appliances and devices today that will last for decades?
The simple answer is yes, if you’re willing to pay for them and buy carefully. Spend the inflation-adjusted equivalent of what the QM spent on her Frigidaire back in the fifties and you could get a commercial-grade refrigerator with serviceable parts that would likely last a very long time, with appropriate care. But it probably wouldn’t have an ice maker, or fit neatly into your fitted kitchen.
That’s not what most of us do though. We want something that doesn’t cost more than a small car, so we balance affordability, style and features.
It’s the features that are dangerous: they often disguise weaknesses in the basic features. Buy a smart TV and you may find the money has gone on the (fast-outdated) smarts and not so much on the picture. My buying advice is always focus on the fundamentals: everything else can be bolted on somehow.
So, I don’t think things are necessarily made ‘worse’ than they were sixty years ago. They’re just made to a price point that serves the modern market. That isn’t necessarily a good thing for the environment, but you can argue that wider access to labour saving devices has had important social benefits.
How will this change in the future?
Well there’s also a fair argument to be made that the appropriate ecological cost is not built into the price of many of these goods. Manufacturing is carbon and energy-intensive, and even with recycling directives it’s likely that the price remains artificially low. If this changes then we might see a different attitude from consumers to how long they expect goods to last. With general wealth levels not increasing, it is the manufacturers’ margins that will probably be squeezed.
Changing usage models may be one way to offset the cost. Start-ups are springing up to enable the sharing of all sorts of under-used capital assets from cars to power tools.
Right now laundry services that collect and deliver are a luxury option for the time poor. If the capital cost of appliances rises — and the average size of homes in densely populated metro areas declines — they may become much more of a mass-market proposition.