Built to Last

About a year ago, my mechanical keyboard stopped working. It had only been a year since I bought it. The company was happy to replace it for me, even though it was slightly beyond the 1-year warranty.

I regretted throwing the previous keyboard in the trash. It was not a good feeling. I knew something wasn’t right. “I shouldn’t have to throw this away.”

Maybe it would have been better had I sent it in and had them repair the keyboard. I remember asking them to repair, but they offered a replacement instead—and without thinking twice, I went with it. Maybe because it was convenient.

Even though I was happy to receive the replacement, I wasn’t thrilled about throwing out the previous one, because I am not used to throwing things away. Things in my life usually last me a long time. Let me share some examples.

I have a sleek Japanese beard trimmer from 20 years back that still works great. I use a 15-year-old iPod as a flash drive to carry files. I have a 10-year old Bluetooth speaker that works well to this day. I have my pencil sharpener and clipboard from 30 years ago, which my mother bought for me when I was in high school. I remember her telling me at the time that she’s not buying me those things again, so I’d better make them last. Of course, she now smiles a bit embarrassingly when it comes up.

It’s not that I am going out of my way to take care of these things. I use them when I need to, and put them away when I don’t. There isn’t more to it. It’s surprising that more people are not able to do the same and use their things for long. I have a few ideas why that maybe the case, which I’ll share later.

Here’s another experience. A few months ago, my Nintendo Switch dock stopped working, a little after a year since purchase. It came with a 1-year warranty (unsurprisingly). While my console worked just fine, and I could still play in handheld or table-top mode, I wasn’t able to play games on the TV—hence why I needed the dock repaired.

Nintendo offered to let me send it back to them for a $100 fee simply to diagnose the issue—never mind the cost to resolve it. (Keep in mind, the cost of the system itself was $300.) The other option was to see if I could buy another dock since the console worked fine. The only other option from them was to purchase a refurbished dock ($40) which came with a 3-month warranty. I bought it and it does work (at least for now), while I have the original defunct dock collecting dust.

This experience left me somewhat dissatisfied and…inadequate? I am not used to having things not working. When most companies offer a limited warranty on their products today, they are implicitly saying they don’t stand behind their products (at least not enough). When it stops working beyond the warranty, it’s on you, not them. I guess the reason for this is that they’re not building it to last in the first place.

In other words, they are building these things with obsolescence in mind, whether inadvertently or not. Maybe this is true mostly with electronics? I don’t know. Needless to say, I would have expected better from Nintendo, but I suspect they are not alone.

Some organizations will offer to repair their product at an exorbitant fee, and therefore discourage that repair so you will instead buy another product from them. They fail to realize that this is a losing proposition in the long term—for themselves, their users, and the planet at large.

This prompts a bigger question: Why is it that when we buy things today, they become obsolete tomorrow?

Every year, companies come out with new versions of their products: cars, phones, tablets, computers, etc., citing improvements in technology and making their case for how this year’s model is better than its predecessor from the year before. But do we really need a new model every year? Do we need new phones every year, or every 5 or even 10 years?

We also live in a discount culture, where most companies offer seasonal sales on their items to clear old stock and make room for the new, which calls into question their original pricing to begin with. Discount culture erodes the true meaning of value. This reminds me of a shop window banner put up on Black Friday by Vitsœ, a company that makes long-living furniture:

Sales are for clearing stock before it becomes obsolete.

The truth is, most organizations make things with planned obsolescence in mind, which is unfortunately short-sighted. They simply don’t build products to last.

It’s not entirely companies’ faults when we don’t expect higher standards from them. We have become obsessed with the new (in the short term) rather than having better or best (in the long term). When we keep buying from them in perpetuity, they are only happy to oblige. Almost everything around us is “gaudy, loud, and confusing”, as Mark Adams of Vitsœ puts it.

Here’s what Dieter Rams has said on this culture of consumerism:

The majority of products that we encounter in our day-to-day lives scream for attention or try to impress us with their magnificence or miniscule size. These objects try to dictate our relationships with them.

Rams also said this in 1976 and it couldn’t be more true today:

I imagine our current situation will cause future generations to shudder at the thoughtlessness in the way in which we today fill our homes, our cities and our landscape with a chaos of assorted junk. What a fatalistic apathy we have towards the effect of such things. What atrocities we have to tolerate. Yet we are only half aware of them.

Remember, every time we buy something, someone else has to pay a price for it, and more often than not, it’s not us or these organizations, but rather our planet and future generations, who will come to bear that cost.

I think it was Gandhi who said we have enough resources for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed. The truth is that we cannot continue to use our natural resources forever.

Rams goes on to say:

There is an increasing and irreversible shortage of natural resources: raw materials, energy, food, and land. This must compel us to rationalise, especially in design. The times of thoughtless design, which can only flourish in times of thoughtless production for thoughtless consumption, are over. We cannot afford any more thoughtlessness.

If I had it my way, I would never buy another phone, computer, etc. ever again in my life. I would be willing to pay a premium for that, because it’s good for us (e.g. intelligent and responsible users), it’s good for the organization (as in, selling fewer products to more people at a sustainable price and helping them maintain it), and it’s good for the planet. There is no downside here. Everybody wins.

For those who think recycling is the answer, it’s not. The idea behind recycling is to convert waste into reusable material, but why is there waste to begin with? Even the soda bottles we use now are made of plastic. Whatever happened to reusable glass bottles from years past?

Mark Adams at Vitsœ thinks recycling is a defeat. It means more products go to waste. Put simply, it’s what you do when you have failed to reuse. It seems we have been solving the wrong problem all along. Remember, the goal should be to generate as little waste as possible at all times and in all areas of our lives.

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Vitsœ’s purpose is to allow more people to live better with less, and with longer-lasting items. Company founder Niels Vitsœ has said:

Our happiest customers are those who have dealt with us the longest.

How many organizations can say the same today about their business?

I am not suggesting that we buy things once and it will work perfectly throughout our lives. Far from it. What I am saying though is that we should invest in things we need that are long-lasting, as long as the organizations we buy them from can help us maintain them in the long run. We keep using them rather than throwing them away and getting replacements.

Few companies today make things that can last you a lifetime. Let me share some examples.

I know of a Parisian shoemaker who works out of his atelier to make bespoke shoes. Sure, he charges a premium for his shoes, but they will last you a lifetime if well cared for, including the occasional repair. I don’t know about you, but I would love to have a pair of shoes from him, because it’s one less decision you have to make later.

I bought a yoga mat about a year ago with a lifetime (!) warranty. When you buy things that last, you don’t mind paying more for them—in fact, you are happy to do so because you aren’t constantly buying and throwing things away. You are thinking long term—not only for yourself, but also for the organization you are buying from, and for the planet. It’s a win-win-win.

As I said earlier, I have a Japanese beard trimmer from around 20 years ago that still works well. I don’t remember what I paid for it, but that’s real value.

I have lifetime warranty on my carry-on bag that I bought last year. Sure, I paid a premium for it, because I didn’t want to keep buying those things in perpetuity. I am not rich enough to buy cheap things ad infinitum.

I’ve previously shared how and why I want to get a mechanical watch that I can use all my life. I want a bulletproof, functional time piece that will serve me as a reliable timekeeper, tool, and companion, and never as a precious object to be coddled or prized. I want to wear it every day and use the heck out of it, not keep it inside.

Here are some ideas for how we can cultivate this long-term mindset in our lives.

As users, the most important thing we can do, in every decision we make, is to think long term. Learn to make final choices about things. It’s one less decision you have to make in your life.

We need to eschew consumerism. We need fewer and better things that last longer. We should invest in high-quality and long-lasting things. We need to stop pandering to fashion and invest in a classic, timeless wardrobe.

Above all, we need to be content with less. That means living with everything you need and nothing you don’t.

Here are some lessons we could learn from organizations like Vitsœ:

We need to think long term. We need to remind ourselves that we don’t have to make a choice between having a sustainable business and a sustainable planet. In fact, they should go hand in hand.

We ought to charge a single, fair, and honest price for our products. We should stop giving discounts. We should be able to maintain the products we sell. We need to encourage our customers to reuse.

Obsolescence is not a crime, but it might as well be. We need to stop this throwaway culture and bring an end to this era of wastefulness. Each one of us needs to take responsibility for the world around us. If we keep throwing things away forever, how will we live on this planet with finite resources?

We need to remind ourselves that everything we do is connected to everything else. Doing one thing has an effect on another. It’s imperative we think carefully about what we do, how we do it, and most importantly, why we do it.

We need to invest in ourselves, in the organizations we buy from, and most importantly, our planet.

We don’t need more stuff. Recycling things is not the answer. We need to reuse things. We must learn the art of living better with less that lasts longer.

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