About a year ago I bought a rucksack (backpack) from one of the excellent chain of stores called Go-Camping that are popping up all over the UK. It has been a great bag to have, although three of the zip-handles snapped when I was in the mountains of Northern Philippines. I took the bag along to the Edinburgh branch to be fixed this morning and was amazed when they just replaced it with a new bag on the spot, simply and quickly. I was very impressed with their service but slightly puzzled. The best I was hoping for was that they would be able to fix them in-house and I would pick it up in a few days, or give me new zip handles to fix myself. I asked the guy who was serving me what are you going to do with the old bag? ‘We’ll send it back to the suppliers’ he said, without batting an eyelid. Of course the rucksack had been made in China, but excluding the zips, I think it is of very reasonable quality. Consumers in the West have experienced the drop in prices of many mass-produced goods from China. Made in China once meant cheap and bad quality, but I think the quality is getting better. Modern China may not be a great innovator, may not respect intellectual property rights or encourage creativity and entrepreneurship but they are good copiers and getting better.
Something has been nagging at me though. On reflection, I would have preferred to have my old bag fixed. I remember in India having a problem with a small speaker I had bought to amplify music and one of the members of the community was competent enough and skilled enough to fix it with some screwdrivers and a bit of glue. I confessed that I wouldn’t have had the confidence to have opened it up (even though it was only cheap) and he said to me ‘Well if anything breaks in Europe you throw it away and just by a new one!’. How right he is! I also remember being amazed in Manila when I went to a market full of guys who could fix electrical equipment and watching the skill of the guy who fixed my phone for me. So I have come to the conclusion that our hyper-consumerism is not just wasteful but it is also de-skilling. Marx talked about the ‘alienation’ of producers (often factory workers) from what they produced because they didn’t own the means of production, a theme also picked up in the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum. Could there be a new form of alienation of consumers in late-capitalism. You get a great sense of satisfaction from repairing something rather than just chucking it away, however often in order to repair something you need to be provided with the tools/parts to do the job and sometimes the training to. Nowadays domestic appliances come with forbidding labels such as ‘Disassembly voids warranty’ . This sense of consumer alienation can be experienced by an impotent fury when confronted tamper proof seals. Now we are presented with shiny new replacement products in all their packaging whilst the old object, with its history, scuffs and stains, each one which tells its own story is discarded. There is something about the human soul that delights in being creative, there is something in the human vocation to be a co-creator …. however a throw-away culture stifles that.