Clare Press is the founder of sustainable fashion platform Wardrobe Crisis.
My toaster is broken and I'm sad. This happened weeks ago and I've yet to buy a new one – not because of my broken heart. I'm not that sad. But, because the last time this happened, I stuffed up royally by buying this piece of overpriced junk, seduced by its famous brand name and fancy copper-trimmed knobs.
When it ceased to toast, I vowed to return it, before realizing that its 12-month warranty had expired by a galling few days. They do this on purpose. It's called planned obsolescence; it's a strategy to deliberately give a product a finite lifespan, often used to encourage repeat purchases.
‘Well, I'm not having it!’ I thought.
My penultimate toaster had worked for 14 years. (I know, it was a different world.) Nevertheless, she persisted. I tried taking the offending item to the old guy, Joe, down the road. Joe fixed stuff. Past tense. Covid and soaring city rents had fixed his business – he was gone. Yet, I refused to cave in to The Man, to bow to corporate greed.
‘I won't buy another of these duds,’ I decided. ‘Toast is canceled.’
When I got home, I shoved the thing in a bag under the stairs. There it remains. I must wait, now, for my council's quarterly e-waste drop-off day. My only other option is to toss it in the bin.
I work in fashion and, if anything, it's even worse with clothes. E-waste collection programs, like my local one, are well-established in many cities. Waste management company TerraCycle works in 21 countries, partnering with brands to collect and recycle everything from bread bags to beauty packaging. Fashion options, however, remain a challenge. Curbside collection of textiles is pretty much non-existent wherever you are. If you need to get rid of clothes or shoes that aren't in good enough nick to sell, often your only option is landfill.
But as mountains of waste pile up, the pressure's on. New laws will force brands to take responsibility for their stuff when it conks out.
Back in 2008, the European Commission's Waste Framework Directive opened the door for this, inviting European Union member states to ‘take legislative or non-legislative measures to ensure [anyone] who professionally develops, manufactures, processes, treats, sells or imports products (producer of the product) has extended producer responsibility.’ Basically, the polluter pays.
This can take different forms. An obvious one is fines. When, say, a factory tips toxic wastewater into a river, we expect that they pay to clean it up. But the game-changer here is when we apply this principle to the small stuff.
Imagine the crisis meetings called by my toaster manufacturer when the UK introduced its right-to-repair law last summer. Meanwhile, in Stockholm and Paris, fashion brands are surely scrambling to set up clothing take-back schemes, with both Sweden and France having added new categories to their extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws in recent years. More is coming with the EU's Green Deal and several US states looking into EPR for packaging.
This won't just change waste – it'll revolutionize design. If it's now a business' responsibility to fix the product when it breaks or escapes into the environment, there's an incentive to design it so that: 1) it lasts longer; 2) it's repairable or biodegradable; and 3) it's as easy as possible to disassemble for recycling, so that you can retain the value of its various components.
Maybe toast won't be canceled forever after all.
A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 47, June/July 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.