Repair without despair

It’s unusual for me to pick up the same theme in two successive articles, but, with our dear editor’s permission, I return to the world of repair.  

Why? Well, I have a tale to tell that illustrates just how big the challenge of restoring repair to a full and mainstream role in the ‘resource use hierarchy’ is. In and amongst all the conferences and projects talking about new business models for the circular economy and changing public and business behaviour, there are plenty of tales of the frustrating practicality (or rather, lack thereof) of getting stuff repaired.

Increasingly, we are all trying to make more of an effort to buy durable products and ensure they last even longer, particularly with functional items that might transcend rapid fashion shifts and technology improvements. Clearly, this doesn’t apply to electronics, and even the most ardent environmentalists are seen brandishing smartphones and tablets, so we will leave that one for another day.

I am talking about something as simple and functional as a wheeled suitcase. Some years ago, I purchased an expensive model with a built-in suit carrier that met my needs for business travel. It came with a lifetime guarantee for the suitcase body, which I think is made out of that stuff they make space shuttles out of. I bought it on the basis that I fully expected to use it for the next 20 years, which justified the higher upfront costs over the long lifetime of the product. (Yes, I did indeed make that judgment call at the time of purchase as well as judge it to be a classic, long-lasting design.)

What I didn’t bargain for was that the lifetime guarantee only applied to the very tough body. It didn’t apply to the plastic telescopic handle, which of course was the bit that then broke, rendering the product barely functional.

And so, in a phone call with the manufacturer’s agent, I was advised that if I wanted it repaired, I had to ship it to the agent for assessment. They would place it in a queue and call me sometime in the following four weeks to advise the cost of repair, and then if I wanted it repaired I would need to pay upfront before receipt of the returned product. If I didn’t want it repaired, it could be returned to me at my own expense.

This article was taken from Issue 76

Fortunately, I took the leap of faith and sent it down. It cost £28 to ship on a signed delivery (their requirement), and I had to pack it into a cardboard box for despatch (also their requirement). Remember, this is a suitcase made of the stuff that space shuttles are built from! It could surely have just been sent with a label on it, like when it normally travels in aircraft luggage compartments…

Two weeks later, the call came. It was going to cost £40 to repair and it would take up another four weeks to return, with no guarantee of a specified date, just a statement that it was in the workshop in a queue and they would let me know.

Now, you can see where I am going with this. Because I am a committed recycler and trying to do the right thing here (plus I like my suitcase), I persevered and got the damned thing repaired. But I wonder how many others would have given up (or not been able to wait five weeks in such a vague customer service situation) and just said: ‘Forget it, stick it in the bin, I’ll buy another cheap one instead.’

We know there is much to do to steer the market towards a repair revival by making repair business models cost effective, as well as making the cost of dumping prohibitive. This is for the policymakers, economists and the Treasury (I hope) to grapple with one day. But let’s not forget that good old-fashioned customer service will also go a long way to creating a positive climate for easy, accessible and viable repair services.     

And now, I hate to say it, but the washing machine has just conked out. Don’t worry, normal service will be resumed next time!