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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Obsolete Products

You can still buy a horse and buggy. But try buying a new manual typewriter or a windup watch or, very soon, records and turntables to play them on. The difference is that the horse and buggy were rendered obsolete but not extinct decades ago by the motor vehicle. The new produce obsolescence deals in extinction of the previous product. The old permits choice; the new imposes coercion.

Increasingly, people are writing us about the product extinction. A man from Montana says he could not buy a new manual typewriter to replace his trusty but exhausted model. No U.S. manufacturer makes them. The only place to buy them new is from Eastern Europe.

For consumers who want their watches simple and do not mind aerobically winding them up every morning, the stores have only digital quartz watches with all kinds of gizmos–alarms, stop watches, calendars and of course mercury laden batteries. These mod watches are more vulnerable to breakdowns and styling obsolescence which, of course, leads to people owning more than one watch and buying more frequently to keep up with the latest fashion. Isn’t that the goal of marketing?

Edna Hampton of Windsor, California had to replace the needle on her turntable to enjoy her large collection of records. She was informed by all the major equipment shops that her model (1983) was obsolete and no longer in stock. She finally replaced the cartridge. But she wonders how long she will be able to play her records.

“When record companies introduced cassettes to the marketplace in the 80’s,” she said, “they did not discontinue albums.” “I believe that the record companies should provide consumers with a choice,” she added, “instead of forcing all of us who own older stereo systems to trash them, along with our albums and purchase new systems.” She cannot locate new models with turntables. “Standard equipment has a cassette and a CD!”

CDs are, by happenstance, more expensive than their recent predecessors.

In ye olden days, local craftsmen would repair old machines around the community. Repair was a word frequently used. New machines did not replace the capability to repair old machines.

Today, there are few repair shops of any kind operating outside of garages, and there, parts for 20-year old cars are not usually available.

I remember taking all kinds of appliances and even umbrellas to repair stores as a child. Now, even if repair is possible, the advice is — “get a new television set or refrigerator, it’s cheaper than getting yours repaired.” Is it? Well I would like to hear that advice from someone other than a retailer who makes more money by selling a replacement.

The product designers now make their products for replacement and not for repair. That makes for more business all the way down the selling line, including the operators of landfills.

We need to restore an awareness of the many pluses of repair and restoration of products, as we have toward the restoration of historic buildings. From thrift to recycling, from avoidance of confiscation (record albums) to the protection of skills (manual typing) the advantages are numerous.

There are people worrying about not being able to buy typewriter ribbons or carbon paper, thereby losing the tools for communicating this way. The time may be approaching when only collectors clubs, storing the remnants of parts and materials, can come to the rescue.

During the early decades of the automobile, a favorite response of Americans when they saw drivers vainly trying to start their vehicle or getting stuck in the mud or the snow was: “Get a horse.” What we do say to more and more consumers of more and more extinct or deliberately obsoleted products who have no “horses to get?”