Posted by Jonathan Perron-Clow

The Buzz About YEF: A renewable (repairable) world

After 10 months of traveling the country, our Fellows are sharing their final thoughts on the YEF program, energy issues and leadership in this The Buzz About YEF blog. This week, the state of Kelly O’Neil‘s suitcase becomes a symbol of our poor consumption habits and economy.

I have needed a new suitcase for a while, but I just can’t bring myself to replace it. It’s not that I’m sentimental about my trusty old carry-on, although I bought it eight years ago when I started my first “real” job and it has survived years of consulting, two years as an international student and many trips out West to visit family. I can’t replace it because, despite eight years of being dragged onto planes, trains and automobiles, there is only one problem with it. One of the wheels has slowly been wearing down, and just before our last Your Energy Future study tour it finally fell off. The rest of the suitcase is good as new, really. But Hays doesn’t offer replacement wheels on that brand (they only actually offer one suitcase with replaceable wheels), and all my attempts to MacGyver the wheel have fallen apart after a trip or two. So, it’s only a matter of time before my stubbornness in keeping a 75 percent functional suitcase gives way to my annoyance at carrying a wheeled suitcase around and I buy a new one.

This is not a new story, nor is it a unique one. Companies across the world know it is easier to compete on new, cheap, multi-featured products than it is to educate consumers on the value of long-lasting goods, which are likely more expensive up-front. As a result, we live in a world filled of one-time-use and planned obsolescence. Customers like it because shopping gives us a dopamine rush while taking something in to be repaired is just a chore.

However, it is no secret that this culture is a major contributor to environmental and social issues worldwide. Overflowing landfills full of 75 percent functional items are often located near the communities that have the least political leverage to avoid them. A high-emissions transport network has been built to bridge the gap between low-cost (and often low-working-standards) factories to the end consumer.  Huge amounts of energy and water go into manufacturing products, even as the jobs once created by these ever-more-automated factories start to disappear.

What if we took another approach? If manufacturing jobs are going away due to automation, why not replace them with skilled and specialized repair jobs. I would love to live in a world where, instead of trying to fix my wheel with whatever screws, glue, tennis balls and string I could find in my apartment (I wasn’t kidding about the MacGyvering), I was able to take it to my local repair shop.

In one of our Your Energy Future sessions, I was struck by a story shared by Action Canada alumna Sarah Robinson, about her grandfather meeting a white settler for the first time. The man gave him a candy bar and her grandfather kept the wrapper for days afterward because it was the first time he had seen anything that was supposed to be discarded after a single use. If we as a country want to transition back to a society that values repair and re-use over new and wasteful, we should be seeking advice from Indigenous communities and elders.

Changing from a society where it is easier to buy new than to repair to the exact opposite sounds impossible. It requires corporations to change their business models, government to support the transition through training and policy and a shift change in public thinking. But our land has operated this way before and if we can get back to that, even partially, it could lead to beneficial results for Canada and act as an example to the world. Until then, I guess I’ll keep dragging my old suitcase around.


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