When we built our new home 6 years ago we bought all new energy efficient appliances, all from Sears, all Kenmore. This week while baking some custard, the stove, Kenmore (made by Frigidaire), started beeping and the panel on the Electronic Oven Control (EOC) started flashing “F10”. We dug out the stove manual and after some digging found out that F10 meant “Runaway Temperature”. The oven temperature had soared to over 500F while being set at 325F and the custards were small black volcanos. We turned off power at the circuit breaker since nothing on the control panel responded to the touch controls. With the power off, I removed the back panel behind the EOC and found it partly blackened from short circuits – it appeared more than one.
We called a repair person, a very busy man who called back the next day. He asked how old the stove was and when I told him 6 years he said we were luckier than most. These EOC systems, he told us, often do not last more than 3 years. He asked what model number so he could check whether or not they still made a replacement part, if any were available and what the cost would be. The part cost, he said, usually ran between $300 and $500. We gave him the information. He called back after a few minutes to advise the part would cost $326 plus $48.74 tax = $374.74 plus installation. An almost identical new stove the same size, made by Frigidaire (the company that made our Kenmore) would be $698. The part for our six year old stove now costs 46.7% of the cost of an entire new stove.
At our cottage, which we purchased in 1994, there is a stove that was 10-15 years old when we bought it, which makes it over 30 years old now. Since 1994 we have only had to replace two stove top elements that cost about $25 each. $50 over 30 years. It is clear that the world has changed. The changes made to stoves to make them “smart” are not anything necessary or of great value. They are ‘frills’! They add nothing to the essential usefulness of stoves. Indeed we should fear them since they can allow the stove to turned on and be used when we are not at the home. Worse they are likely to fail – not anything I would recommend given the determination of appliance manufacturers to provide appliances people cannot depend upon. After the “runaway temperature” incident, we will not again leave the house with the stove on; in fact we will have to remain in a room close enough to the kitchen to hear if the alarm beeps!
I do a considerable amount of research on capitalism, the economic system which is steadily spiraling into chaos. Some chaotic processes are slow, like climate change. Others like accelerated obsolescence are galloping chaos. The purpose of the few huge manufacturers, who produce for numerous competing brand names, is not to provide us with appliances, never mind safe reliable appliances. Their purpose it is to maximize profits. There is more profit to be made from selling new appliances. Charging exorbitant prices for parts, and making them as hard to get as possible, is a reinforcing pressure to buy a new one. People desperately need their appliances for keeping food from spoiling, for cooking it, and for washing and other necessities of daily life. Most of the ‘exotic’ features, like being able to ‘phone your stove’, are really rather useless frills but increasingly it is difficult to find an appliance without them. These features shorten the life of appliances. For example the new stove I had to purchase because we had visitors arriving has sensors on each stove top element that shuts them off at 700F. I suspect these burners will fail early and be expensive and hard to replace after the stove is only two or four years old. Our stove at the cottage has cooked meals for more than thirty years without any of the so called ‘great improvements’ designed to fail and boost new stove sales.
On a recent CBC Marketplace episode on appliances, I felt sorry for the poor woman they interviewed, a paid employee of the appliance manufacturers, who had to weave and bob around the interviewer’s questions. I am sure she is a decent person who loves her family and cares about her children and grandchildren. She is likely a caring neighbor. She was clearly articulate and intelligent. It was painful to watch her reduced to mouthing weak, banal excuses and having to defend the indefensible. At some level she must feel a deep rooted angst. Many, many people are caught between earning a living and believing in the value of what they do for a living.
Shop floor workers have to build what they know are shoddy products. Managers are under pressure to make them produce as much as possible for as little as they can pay them with little regard for pollution or worker safety. Industry apologists have to defend the indefensible. They all undermine their self-respect acting on behalf of shareholders seeking maximum profit in the next quarter. I suspect it is an underlying cause of much of the drug abuse and alcoholism and even suicide that are slowly growing in our societies. Much work in our society is not fulfilling or ennobling, but demeaning.
Let’s nurture and assist worker owned businesses to produce basic reliable appliances and parts close to the people who need them. Yes, we do need ‘right to repair’ laws, but we can do far more by building a better, more people centered economy, that will be less likely to produce garbage appliances. Let’s require the corporations producing garbage appliances to take them back when they fail or cannot be repaired at a reasonable price and make them recycle every component. If they had to absorb the cost of the garbage they produce, rather than to pass it along to society to pay, they would be less likely to produce garbage appliances. If the appliances and their parts were made by worker owned companies close to the buyers and their communities, they would pay fairer salaries and provide needed benefits. Starvation wages, exploited women and children workers, cheap unsafe working conditions, tax avoidance and seeking lax or non-existent environmental protection are key standard tools of investor owned firms to maximize profits.
As with so many increasingly urgent issues in our investor driven economy, the appliance mess is not an aberration but a standard, logical outcome of capitalism. Just one more part of chaos capitalism.