Can blenders go to heaven? Product design and longevity revisited, GDR style.

December 2017 | Blog

How poor product design, the abundance of different products and inbuilt obsolescence lead to massive electronic waste, and how a much-loved blender designed in the GDR makes us rethink our relationship with products and design.

Can Blenders Go to Heaven is the memorable title of a touching German film which I saw a few days ago, in a small cinema in old East Berlin. The cinema is in the street I first lived in, named after Soviet Spy Richard Sorge. I could well imagine that the smoky bar (allowed in Berlin) could have had its fair share of spies in former times, but probably Stasi rather than double agents like Sorge (he even got an obituary in The Economist a few years after I first wrote about the film, to my surprise. He met a sticky end, as one can imagine).

I chose to see the film, directed by German director Reinhard Günzler, due to my interest in waste and circular economy, and because it was at my local cinema – a few minutes’ walk from my studio flat, sublet from a Russian journalist, as it happens, who I’d only ever met on Skype (perhaps the spy connection was why he chose to live on this street. I never thought to ask).

The film follows a young Swiss student, Carmen, as she explores the reasons why the old characteristically orange coloured RG28 blender she finds in a flea market in Jena works better than the more recent blender she was using which gave up the ghost just as she wanted to bake a cake for a student party. Her exploration provides the substance for the film.

The themes of product design, sustainability and e-waste are broached through the main character: it’s fitting that she is a student, still curious and able to question the world order she is expected to then contribute to after her studies. Her investigations question the relationship we have with the things that we use every day, how they’re made, who they’re made by. Our throwaway society. Whether the things that accompany our lives everyday can have a ‘soul’ if we throw them away so quickly. And whether we can respect the people who make those things if they don’t really care about the work they do in their factory, hundreds or thousands of miles away from us, the end users, and indeed whether they can respect themselves, or their work, or indeed us, the users and consumers, in this throwaway culture.

The film is also, on a secondary level, about the former GDR: under the East German régime, there was one main factory in Suhl, in Thuringia, which made most of the electrical household products for the country at the time. Many of these were known for being well made and long-lasting. The RG28, an orange-coloured food blender, the other ‘hero’ in the film, is still legendary for its durability among the older generation who lived during the GDR period, even people my age. And it often still works, over 40 years after its manufacture.

Carmen, a circular economy re-use heroine before her time, makes a successful cake with the blender (the party goes well, even if she loses her boyfriend afterwards), then goes on to research her flea market trophy. She interviews the factory workers, who still feel very proud of the work they did, truly knew about their product, often spending their whole working lives in the factory. She also interviews a theologian, a philosopher, a psychoanalyst, an economist and a historian about how our relationship with things has changed with the advent of capitalism and the throwaway consumer culture.

This could be a case of ‘Ostalgie’ – nostalgia for the old East Germany, as some may surmise from the film’s mood and occasional sentimentality. It is more the exploration of an aspect of the GDR that I, as a foreigner working on circularity, could not help but feel some admiration for. Without cut-throat competition, and with fewer raw materials and no cheap energy, more effort was spent on making long-lasting products with good (enough) materials made by just the one manufacturer. These generally didn’t end up in landfill a few years later. This was in the context of an absent, supposedly ‘free’ market, where many companies make similar products (often on a ‘same same but different’ model, with little to truly distinguish them, even if most brands would naturally contest this). Like many companies after the ‘Wende’ after 1991, the producer was then jettisoned by the new, reunified Germany.

The film touches on the increasingly massive problem of e-waste, a plague of our times with millions of tonnes of products that could be dismantled, repaired, refurbished, but aren’t, because it’s currently cheaper to buy a new(er) model. And because these are exported, often illegally, to countries like Ghana, endangering the health of thousands, including children. One of the most shocking moments in the film is when the heroine walks through a huge warehouse in Germany full of electrical waste, and watches how it gets destroyed. Even today, 6 years later after I first wrote this article, ‘urban mining’ on a significant scale (extracting materials back from products in an urban context) in Europe is still at its inception.

The film, which can be placed in the same family as French film Demain (2015) screened for the first time at the Paris COP21 last year, is a moving and timely reminder of where mass consumerism has taken us. I hope the film comes out abroad soon with subtitles for non-German speakers and reaches a wider audience; we were only a handful of spectators in a small arthouse cinema. My curiosity as often got the better of me, and I had to ask why they’d come. One of the spectators had a relative who’d worked in the factory mentioned in the film in Suhl, in the German region of Thüringen. I gave away my parent’s SEB blender and yogurt maker, which also featured a fair bit of orange, recently. Damn, I should have kept them, perhaps they’ll still be working in 30 years’ time: not produced in the GDR, but perhaps they were better made than those on sale today.

Key takeaways for Readers: (CUT)

  • Remember the Rs – Refuse, Reduce, Refurbish, Repair, Recycle… Do you really need that new electronic product? Can you buy a decent version of it with a guarantee on a refurbished website, or lease/borrow it from a neighbour or tool library? Local platforms like Craigslist, in Berlin, FB groups and eBay can help.
  • Try to buy quality electronic goods if you do have to buy new: do your homework, check what they are made of, what plastics they are made with, how long the brand has been around, any policies on repair, modular design, which parts are likely to wear and tear first and which parts can be replaced.
  • Feel free to email the manufacturer, post on social media to critique (and praise if there is something to praise!) the product in terms of repairability and longevity. This is also how brands shift the goal posts in terms of their practices.
  • Beware the greenwashing, but also be aware that no brand produces the perfect product! French group SEB is doing some interesting stuff on guaranteeing spare parts for all its products, a promise it put in place pre-empting French legislation in 2015 which banned planned obsolescence in France – a worldwide first for circular economy and sustainability.
  • Care for the things that accompany your life – many people made that blender you bought, the parts often in developing countries or even closer to home in Europe, and they will often have worked for low wages. Caring for these objects is also respecting their life time and work.
  • In a fast-changing world, the objects that we care for can help us feel more grounded if we have them for a long time, instead of continuously zapping from one product to the next.

Links / Credits:

  • Film link.
  • Review from Berlin daily newspaper the Tagesspiegel, in German, 2017.
  • Circularity in the GDR: xxx
  • electronic waste repair website: iFixit
  • urban mining (definition)
  • Thanks to the Tilsiter Lichtspielkino, Richard Sorge Strasse, Berlin for showing this film.

#GDR #Tilsiterlichtspielkino #VEBSuhl #circulardesign #Berlin

This article was first published in shorter form on December 4 2017 on Linked in.