Blog: Satish Malnaik

Americans are in the habit of tossing that $6 coffee maker along with the coffee grounds because pitching is cheaper than patching. And now increasingly wealthy Mumbai, India, is following American models of consumption. Among other things, NextServices CEO Satish Malnaik ponders on a throwaway culture and why excess money's not green.

Post 1: If it's broke, DON'T fix it

Before I put forth and share my free flowing thoughts, I want to provide you a disclaimer to bear with the hopping around on elements within the blog. It all makes sense in the end, hopefully. After all, why deliver a predictable dialogue when you can meander and wander off the beaten path? If my post can make you think at the end of this blog post, I would have been happy to be a part of your day.

If I were to take an honest anonymous poll, I feel confident that most, if not all, would agree that we live in a very consumption driven society these days. The environment around us is constantly abuzz with an obsession with buying and selling. If we were to hypothetically stop buying non-essential goods altogether, except for what it takes to keep us functioning as individuals and as a society, the entire economy of the world could come to a grinding halt. So how did we end up this way? Was it always like this? Were our grandparents worse off not having every luxury, tool or gadget ever invented? I am not here to debate the merits that have come about from the many things we have invented to make our lives easier and fuller. What I would like to bring your attention to and provoke thought about is the necessity and the volume or rather the pace of consumption. If I were to just rattle off statistics, I could easily amaze you with what today's modern individual consumes in a defined period of time. We go through a lot.

The hazardous part is that we have also bought into the disposal way of living. Most things bought today are disposable with a short shelf life and not entirely recyclable. I can safely bet that each one of you has many a time encountered the need to want to fix a basic household tool or gadget, but it was simply easier and cheaper to buy a replacement than try to fix something. We do live in an instant gratification world, after all. I call it the "I want it now and I want it cheap" world. Besides, there is also the pressure of time and all the running around our lives are now programmed for which leaves no time for such deviations.

Just a few years back, I lived in a vastly different environment in the city of Mumbai (Bombay, India). That too during the days when modernization, western cultural influences, and heavy foreign investment had yet to hit the shores and the Internet itself was non-existent. I remember clearly how our available means defined our volume of consumption for everything needed in our lives. I regularly joke with my kids that all I had most of the time was rocks to play with. When I flash back to some of those memories, I clearly remembered how even the purchase of a single new appliance was a big deal. The decision itself could take months. Buying a new appliance would involve some pondering before saving and springing the cash for it. Yes, we lived in a world without credit cards. Not by choice, perhaps, but credit cards just didn't exist in that part of the world. You bought what you could save up and were sure beyond an iota of doubt that it was needed. Sure, there were the few that could afford the luxuries but for the most part, India as a country was populated by the middle class and the poor. The culture of limiting that non-essential consumption and the cost that went with it also created an ecosystem that supported maintaining such items. So we had this amazing network of shops and handymen of all colors and flavors that could fix anything and everything. Interestingly, they were also very good at makeshift solutions when a particular part was not available. The size of the problem didn't matter – whether it was a mixer grinder or a car.

Circling back to why I deviated into the past was that the environment above automatically created a world that had very little waste. The use of anything one owned was maxed to the limit with fixes to make it last much beyond its designed shelf life many times. Of course, the costs to fix things were relatively lower because the cost of labor was low and parts were indigenously put together sometimes.  Broken items like appliances, furniture, toys, etc. rarely existed and whatever did also ended up being recycled, almost 100%, just as innovatively. There was no hard push to sell to consumers constantly.

But now the world in Mumbai, India, today is not far from what we have around us in the United States. Consumption has taken over and the private sector, mostly global companies, are doing what they love doing – feeding you with a need to buy more. And the only way public companies can sustain perpetual growth and satisfy stock market demands are to make things that don't have a long shelf life so that consumers can be repeat customers at a shorter frequency.  Even the most current phenomenon, the use of social media, is of heavy interest to the private sector only because it is "the new channel" to sell more. Albeit not directly with an advertisement in a magazine or a billboard this time, but through your network of friends and family. Thus, the consumption monster was created: one that is never satisfied, and needs constant feeding. Our ecosystem unfortunately does not support making consumables that can be fixed easily to prolong their lives. What we miss as a society is the bigger picture. Less consumption leads to lower waste, fewer materials to recycle, and a culture of reuse.

We are now stuck in a vicious cycle, one that is hard to get out of unless the consumer takes charge and creates a movement that causes a dramatic shift to how we choose to perceive reuse vs. recycle. Recycling has picked up some steam but is far from where it could really be. Appearing too 'green' to your friends also has its side effects, depending on where you live. According to a 2011 study by OgilvyEarth, only 18% of the respondents thought going green is masculine. The other 82% associated it with being more feminine, which would automatically either dissuade the average male from taking reuse seriously or perhaps just not openly admitting to it.  

When my coffee grinder/maker fried from a power surge, I couldn't find a replacement part even if I wanted to. When the labor cost to fix a small component of an appliance (with or without shipping costs) is 30 times that of the part, something is wrong. One could probably recollect quite a few gadgets and appliances that went into the trash bin just because repair costs exceed purchase costs, or simply because repairing is not even an option. Let me rattle off some that many of you probably retired into the graveyard: iron (press), microwaves, coffee makers, DVD players, Wi-Fi equipment, electric razors, etc. If you take a few of these and multiply them by the number that use them, I think we are talking a serious volume of trash.

I can perhaps go on for quite a bit more to build my case for a debate on reuse, but I feel that my comments so far probably get the point across. What we as individuals need to realize is that just like the housing market, our constantly increasing consumption can continue to ride on the way it is. We have to go back to learning to live with things purposefully and automatically force the business and manufacturing world to start making products that have a longer shelf life and that are not designed with a use-and-throw mentality. It may not be your problem today, but it sure will be tomorrow.