Planned obsolescence: what if the solution was in our hands?
A company offers workshops to acquire and develop manual skills and thus counter waste and excessive consumption.
According to a UN report, small appliances and electronic devices generate more than 44 million tons of waste per year on the planet.
In a local in Little Italy in Montreal, one Sunday of the Thanksgiving weekend, three women and a man are seated around a large table with two toasters, an electric air pump and a light therapy device, all dismantled and defective. Around them, the walls are filled with tools and home improvement materials.
Welcome to the Repair your small appliances like a pro workshop, one of the few zero-waste workshops offered by Les Affûtés. Participants listen attentively to their workshop manager giving them basic tips and tricks for opening their small household appliances or checking the voltage.
After almost three hours of trying and working on his toaster (whose handle no longer works), François is all smiles. Hey! It's repaired. You can imagine how many people would have thrown it away, he says proudly to the other participants.
This pride, clearly visible on the eyes, is what motivates the founder of Les Affûtés, Michael Schwartz, in his work. This Frenchman, now living in Quebec, launched his business in 2019 after learning the basics of woodworking from a retired carpenter. I was truly transformed by the experience and pride of making everyday objects myself. It gave me confidence. And I thought it would probably be the same for a lot of people of my generation, used to cell phones and computers, says the 36-year-old man.< p class="styled__StyledLegend-sc-v64krj-0 cfqhYM">Michael Schwartz created Les Affûtés, which he describes as a “social and environmental impact” company.
Today, Les Affûtés has grown to include three centers to Montreal. According to Michael Schwartz, 2,500 people register each month for the various activities offered by some forty workshop leaders, also called sharpeners.
Maxime Prati is one of those. He gives the repair shop for small household appliances. This former Hydro-Québec employee, who calls himself a jack-of-all-trades, has a background in electricity and mechanics. This contractor, who teaches among others at the University of Montreal, speaks with passion about his work. Our business is to sell benevolence, to help people. People come here to become more independent and out of concern for the environment. They want to free themselves, remarks Maxime Prati who has more than one trick up his sleeve, in particular to circumvent planned obsolescence.
During the workshop, he observes that a participant's toaster cannot be disassembled because the manufacturer has used triangular-head screws, which are incompatible with screwdriver tips on the market. Whatever. He has a sense of resourcefulness. I buy tips or bits from Dollarama, he says, and file them into the desired shape, in this case a triangle. In 10 minutes, I have what I need to open the toaster.
Maxime Prati (center) in the middle of a repair shop for small household appliances.
He adds that companies often prevent consumers from dismantling these types of devices citing security concerns. But, in his opinion, it is rather to force the general public to go and buy a new device in the event of breakage. Most of the time, just cleaning the toaster lever from the inside will get it working again, he notes.
Maxime Prati observes that more and more people want to have their objects repaired, especially since the pandemic. There is interest because people can no longer easily replace equipment and there is a long wait to get parts, among other things because of labor shortages and breaks in the supply chains. This is the case, according to him, for laptops and cell phones, among others.
But this reflex to extend the lifespan of devices is still too little widespread, according to Michael Schwartz. The founder of Les Affûtés indicates that repair shops represent less than 10% of its offer. The remaining 90% concerns obtaining skills, such as an introduction to welding, sewing or renovation, for example. On the other hand, by making something yourself, you begin to be more aware of the objects, to want to repair them more. By giving people manual skills, their relationship to objects changes, he notes.
Les Affûtés is still an awareness of people who wonder if there is no way to live otherwise, believes the associate professor in the Department of Management at HEC Montreal, Yves-Marie Abraham. It's a really interesting track, not only to have durable goods, but also to regain control of our lives. Learning to do a number of things yourself is a pretty powerful skill these days. We are dependent on techniques that we have absolutely no mastery of and when [our objects] break, we are completely vulnerable and helpless.
That said, the professor who teaches degrowth at HEC Montreal says that tackling obsolescence is like tackling capitalism, which is based on the production and sale of goods. The problem is that most people who advocate the fight against obsolescence imagine that we could have a capitalism that would work by avoiding these effects of obsolescence. […] What I do as a researcher is to work on degrowth, post-growth, that is to say in fact on post-capitalism, to try to conceive of other ways to produce and consume, he adds.
Realistic or not, degrowth? According to Yves-Marie Abraham, we approach it for ecological reasons. Basically, we're going to crush. If we are realistic today, we cannot continue. We are heading towards the depletion of resources, the saturation of waste and the impossibility of the current system, he argues.
He recalls that 50 years ago this year, the Club of Rome – which brings together businessmen, senior UN officials, scientists and heads of state – came to the same conclusion in its first report, also known as the Meadows Report. In short, its authors asserted that unlimited growth of population and material production is not sustainable in the long term.
An encouraging sign in his eyes is that students are interested in degrowth. When I started in 2013, I had 12 students in the class. This year, 150 young people will have registered for my course on the subject, says Professor Abraham.
For his part, as a business leader, Michael Schwartz notices that people want to do things differently. But there is still a great lack of meeting places to express it, to do it. At Les Affûtés, we want to recreate the community, get people out of their isolation. They love the group energy. They like to talk and are very reassured to learn skills collectively.
“You have to see the vibe here at Christmas. It's full of people who come to give gifts, make toys or cutting boards, etc., to give to their loved ones. »
— Michael Schwartz, founder of Les Affûtés
On a human level, the experience is also rewarding. He quotes grandfathers who take their grandchildren to introduce them to the pleasure of manual work. Or, a participant who came to restore the damaged trunk that his grandfather, originally from Southeast Asia, had used to emigrate to Canada by boat, 70 years ago. He had spent several hours working on it. There was such pride in him to bring this object to life, which represented the history of his family. It was wonderful to see, recalls Michael Schwartz.