As the end-of-year holidays approach, it’s a good time to reflect on the things that really matter: Enjoying lots of quality time with the people we love, eating enormous amounts of delicious food, and spending gobs of money on all kinds of ridiculous gadgets we and our loved ones don’t need.
Kidding, sort of. It’s nearly impossible to escape consumerism at this time of year. And while the greenest phone is the one already in your pocket and we’re always in favor of buying less stuff, it’s not always possible to opt out of giving gifts.
But there’s a less damaging strategy for buying stuff. By giving stuff that’s repairable, you make sure that your gift won’t get shoved in the Drawer of Broken Things before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve. Plus, it’s an opportunity to invite your friends and family to think about repair—one of the most important stepping stones on our path away from disposable culture.
Here are a few repairability questions to ask yourself when you’re buying gifts this holiday season.
Can you replace the battery?
A device with a sealed-in battery has a secret death date. Eventually (usually after 3-4 years), any battery will stop holding a charge.
When it comes to powering our devices, the choices manufacturers make can set the tone for the device’s lifespan and repairability. Some brands design with replaceability in mind, using batteries that can be easily swapped out, held in place with common screws and user-friendly mechanisms. You can replace the battery in a Fairphone, for instance, with no tools beyond your thumbnail (a process that will be familiar to anyone who had a cell phone before the first iPhone).
In stark contrast, others opt for glued-in batteries, proprietary screws, and designs that discourage any form of tinkering, including soldering batteries in place and implementing software pairings that reject non-original replacements. Avoid products like AirPods, which can’t be opened at all without cutting into them, making battery replacements impossible.
Sealing in batteries is a practice that not only exposes the dirty truth about their so-called commitment to sustainability but also coerces consumers into premature upgrades through performance throttling—clearly a choice rather than a necessity.
Does it have extra, unnecessary electronics?
Every year, we look at the new products released at the Consumer Electronics Show and give awards to the least sustainable, least repairable offerings. Reflecting on the 2023 CES Worst In Show, it’s evident that the trend of slapping the latest technology onto devices, often without practical justification, has reached new heights.
Who needs a sealed-in battery in a coffee mug? Why does an earbud charging case need an LCD built in? Who asked for an electronic device to put in our toilets and analyze our pee?
The more electronics in something, the more opportunities there are for it to fail. This is the first truth of Dr. Richard Cook’s treatise on how complicated systems break down: “Complex systems are intrinsically hazardous systems.”
When it comes to long-lasting stuff, the simpler the better. That’s why so many farmers these days are choosing tractors without any electronics. And why JD Power’s car owner satisfaction survey reported its first-ever decline—The Verge reported that the decline is largely due to people “getting increasingly fed up with their car infotainment systems.” Missing the days when the car radio had a dial isn’t just nostalgia: The dial’s a lot less likely to break than a touchscreen.
Whether it’s touchscreen technology, AR, VR, or the latest in AI, the mantra seems to be “because we can” rather than “because we should.” Echoing Dr. Ian Malcolm’s sentiment from Jurassic Park, we’re at risk of being “eaten” by our own creations—our unrepairable, unsustainable gadgets contributing to the mounting crisis of climate change. Like the scientists who failed to respect nature’s laws, we’re ignoring the inevitable entropy of technology.
Can you replace the parts that are most likely to break?
If you are planning to buy something with a component that’s likely to break, such as a touchscreen, think about your repair options before you hit the checkout stand. Take a look at how the device is constructed. See if you can find a repair manual. Consider your warranty—and post-warranty—repair options. Does the manufacturer sell parts? Would you be comfortable doing a repair yourself? If not, are there repair options near you?
We’ve got lists of all the repairability scores we’ve given laptops, smartphones, and tablets. So if you’re buying something in those categories, take a look at the repairability guide before you buy.
The choice to make a product repairable is often just that—a choice. Whether it’s a screen, a battery, or any other part, almost anything is fixable with the right design choice. Consumers should demand devices designed with longevity and repairability in mind, challenging the norm of disposable tech.
Give stuff that’s going to last
As we approach the holiday season, a time synonymous with tech upgrades and new purchases, it’s essential to anchor our choices in the principles of longevity, practicality, and sustainability. Every purchase is a statement—a choice that either contributes to the growing problem of e-waste and environmental degradation or stands as a beacon of responsible consumerism.
So before you start crossing things off your holiday gift list this year, do some research into the repair and maintenance of the stuff you’re considering. Consider refurbished and pre-owned devices, which are not only better for the planet but also wallet-friendly (sometimes buying refurbished lets you get a higher-quality product for disposable tech prices!).
And the holidays are a good time to make sure that all the potential repair enthusiasts in your life have the tools they need to keep their stuff working.
The decisions we make this holiday season can pave the way for a more sustainable and repairable tech world.