Resurrecting the recycle economy
Most companies are more interested in selling new products than servicing old ones. Their army of call centre, social media and service centre employees subtly nudge you in that direction.
A regular change of battery and some routine servicing is what my very ordinary laptop required. I reached out to the manufacturer but received only promises of best service. After weeks of follow-up when I did receive a quotation for the potential parts that may need replacement, it was a no-brainer that the company was more interested in selling new products than servicing old ones. Their army of call centre, social media and service centre employees subtly nudge you in that direction.
Some time ago, the power supply unit of our high-end television from a respected Japanese manufacturer went kaput. The small part was quoted at 15% of the cost of the TV, to be paid in advance to the dealer, with three-four weeks procurement time—that he failed to procure eventually. Yes, that is how timelines work in small town India. The reply from the company’s customer support head said: “We are unable to source the part, please buy a new unit. We offer you a generous 25% discount on the new one if you exchange the old.” When questioned about their legal obligation to supply the part, the same response was repeated. No inclination to repair, please buy a new one.
Yet, all my screens are flooded with ‘Go Green’ initiatives of these very companies, meticulously including the words—Reuse, Recycle, Upcycle, duly amplified by glamourous influencers. In moments of frustration, I wonder if gadgets are indeed designed to go bad once the warranty period is over. Why just big corporates, even the neighbourhood cobbler throws away my fancy shoes and says, “Madam, why do you bother to repair, get a new one”, and I wonder why he is killing his own business, only to notice the jazzy shoe showroom behind him.
Waste in general and e-waste in particular are creating havoc for the environment, which in turn creates problems for our health and happiness. However, most corporates, driven by the sole purpose of increasing sales and revenue, can hardly see this. Their profit margins are higher on sales; repairs are a necessary evil that demand keeping an inventory of old parts and trained manpower to service them across the geography. The sales cycle is more or less one way and ends with the receipt of money. Repairs on the other go back and forth with no guarantee of revenue or return on investments on the repair ecosystem.
Our legal system gives a long rope to the organisations. Taking them to court is constitutionally and theoretically an option, but fails terribly on practical grounds. Most big organisations have a legal department with well-paid lawyers to defend them, greatly shifting the balance in their favour. What do they have at stake: a unit of their product to be given for free at most? An average consumer on the other hand is completely on his own, and will have to spend time and resources chasing the organisation and courts. The cost of the product does not justify the effort and agony involved. Add to it the fact that the technical know-how is completely in the hands of the company, and jargon can be used to mislead. We do not see many cases where organisations not meeting their legal obligations had to pay. Overall, manufacturers can afford to take liberties while the average consumer suffers.
At a time when the government is asking direct sales companies and social media platforms to put in place mechanisms to address customer complaints and grievances, we also need to assess the effectiveness of these customer services. Especially when they are managed by outsourced agencies, automated voice response mechanisms and bots. Customers in most cases have no control on opening and closing a service ticket, the only measure of effectiveness in handling complaints. The anonymity of the person handling your complaint and inability to raise it to the next authority leave nothing in the hands of customers.
The costs of replacement parts have to be regulated. Organisations cannot randomly price the parts of old products to discourage repairs. If the parts of old models are discontinued, technology for the same should be put in public domain so that anyone can manufacture them and repair old products.
The time is ripe for Recycle and Upcycle centres as business ventures. With a bit of skill-based training, youth can be trained to repair what can be repaired, upcycle and re-use the components smartly and creatively. I know there are small pockets of innovation here and there, but what we need is a nationwide or maybe worldwide movement. India always had a strong recycle culture—be it the regular raddiwala who took our waste to recycle or the plethora of small repair shops run by skilled professionals. The use-and-throw culture that has slowly crept in during the last couple of decades with too much choice and disposable income needs to be reversed at the earliest.
What gives me a little hope is the success of peer-to-peer recycle portals and apps that allow us to recycle and increase the lifespan of products we use, along with some of the zero-waste lifestyle groups online.
Author and founder of blogging website IndiTales