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How Dell and Levi's envision the future of repair

It's about self-healing laptops and mustard stains on a pair of jeans.

Robot hand pushes a button

Automation is only part of the picture.

Doing away with a culture of disposability is one of the big dreams of the circular economy. A jolt in this direction came overnight as COVID-19 drove people indoors, forcing many to rethink how they reduce, reuse or recycle items they took for granted only weeks earlier.

As U.S. unemployment claims soared to 30 million, buying non-essentials became an act of either audacity or foolishness. Even window shopping has been confined to a web browser. People have been making every can of beans and square of toilet paper last.

"Like it or not, the coronavirus is changing the rules of consumption," said GreenBiz Editorial Director Heather Clancy during the Circularity Digital virtual event last week. "Millions of consumers are putting off retail purchases and looking at the stuff in their closets and cabinets and desktops in a very different way. Why should this item be thrown away when it could be repaired or refreshed and for that matter, how long should I expect these things to last?"

However, most brands are in the business of selling something new, so circular economy efforts generally have tended to put repair at the bottom of the menu.

Will this pandemic create a lasting change in priorities for business and end users alike?

There's no surefire answer for now, but some of the people thinking the hardest about what all of this means are those who work in product design. Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., works hands-on with denim, zippers and buttons. Being stuck at home lately has been tough.

There’s got to be a better design solution to address end of life, how [products] can easily be refurbished, upcycled and disassembled.

"It’s called on all of my home [economics] skills, all of my ability to prototype and ideate using just the materials around my house, which has been a really exciting exercise," Dillinger said. "It has challenged me to remember a lot of the skill set we don’t often call upon to make from nothing, to repair the broken things around us."

Embracing imperfections and repairs is part of his vision for a pair of jeans to be loved and worn for a decade until ultimately being recycled. Levi’s heritage, after all, began with durable canvas work pants worn by miners around the California gold rush.

Paul Dillinger, Levi's, showing the materials in a 100-percent-cotton pair of jeans.

"Everyone's favorite jean has a repair in it, a stain they don’t mind," he said. "That mustard was a great ballgame. The story of our lives [is] written in our jeans. People will resonate with that far more than with a disposable, unrepairable, unresolvable product."

With that mindset, Dillinger led the design of Levi’s innovative Wellthread shirts, jackets and jeans, which launched in 2015. The company rebuilt blue jeans for recyclability, also slashing the use of water and being mindful of workers' well-being.

A Wellthread denim jacket in the line, for example, uses four technologies to incorporate recovered, chemically recycled and mechanically recycled cotton in the buttons, exterior denim and lining. The end result is 100 percent cellulosic material, the type of single, "clean" input that’s easiest for a recycling system to handle, which is why simple glass bottles, aluminum cans and newspapers have such a long recycling track record. Wellthread jeans contrast with others that are labeled as cotton but actually use blended materials, including polyester, throughout.

If it were up to Dillinger, the industry would be a blank page for design. But reality has a lot of stuff in it already — most of it barely used or valued. Six out of 10 garments are incinerated within a year of production, according to McKinsey research. That means important and scarce natural resources are ruthlessly consumed and discarded, like the more than 3,700 liters of water needed to produce a pair of jeans.

It feels like we’ve moved to this throwaway society. I hope we’re moving in the other direction.

Fast fashion and high-performance fabrics have compounded waste by accelerating the output of apparel that's virtually impossible to recycle. Take, for example, a blend of wool, viscose, polyamide and cashmere in a scarf or sweater. "You would need a solvent for one, a mechanical process for another, heat for another," Dillinger said.

The problem is shared across industries, including in electronics, which make up the world's fastest-growing waste stream. Only 20 percent of e-waste is recycled, according to a United Nations University report in 2017. The fate of the rest is mostly unknown, probably either landfilled, reused or recycled informally.

For Ed Boyd, an inside look at a recycling plant was a wake-up call. The senior vice president of Dell’s Experience Design Group recently visited a new Wistron electronics recycling plant in Dallas, one of the largest in North America. A typical notebook computer includes more than 200 ingredients, only a handful of which can be processed by such a facility. The rest get separated and sent around the planet for handling.

"I’ve been involved in recycling materials for a long time, but seeing it firsthand in that kind of environment was kind of daunting," Boyd said. "I was looking at this through a designer’s eyes thinking, I’ve kind of created this problem. There’s got to be a better design solution to address end of life, how [products] can easily be refurbished, upcycled and disassembled. And that has kicked off a lot of exciting work at Dell really aiming at changing that."

Over the past few years, Dell already has been getting more questions from customers about environmental impacts, reflecting a dramatic shift in sentiment that’s pushing electronics makers to rethink their approaches, Boyd said.

Dell’s "moonshot goals" for 2030 include three things: for an equivalent product to be reused or recycled for every item bought by a customer; for recycled or renewable materials to make up all its packaging; and for more than half of the materials in its products to be made of recycled or renewable materials.

A view from iFixit of the innards of a Dell laptop.

Dell already has plucked some of the low-hanging fruit of closed-loop materials, such as by using reclaimed ocean plastics. In 2011, it introduced the use of mushroom-based cushioning to ship servers. Boyd said the PC maker is exploring with its suppliers how to rethink core product components responsibly, including battery cells, motherboards and displays. It's also considering biopolymers to prevent waste and solar-powered smelting to reduce manufacturing footprints. And Boyd wants Dell to innovate by creating products that can be assembled and later disassembled quickly, extending life cycles by enabling repeated cycles of reuse or upcycling.

That's been the objective for DIY advocates such as Kyle Wiens, at the forefront of the right to repair movement for more than 15 years. The CEO and co-founder of the iFixit repair website, famous for ticking off Apple, pointed out how the 30 or so metals inside a given cell phone have a low recovery rate, making product reuse more efficient than recycling at this time.

"It feels like we’ve moved to this throwaway society," Wiens said. "I hope we’re moving in the other direction."

iFixit helps 100 million people a year fix things, including one in every five Californians, Wiens said. The company sees eight figures in annual sales of toolkits, switches, spark plugs and other parts, but its repairs database is free. It offers nearly 63,000 crowdsourced manuals and advice for an amazing assortment of products, including cars, garden hoses, jacket zippers and PCs. Some 70,000 people have accessed iFixIt’s instructions for repairing a countertop Starbucks Barista machine.

iFixIt also rates products for their accessibility to fixers. A Dell Inspiron laptop that can be opened with a Phillips screwdriver got a 10 out of 10 score, while a Microsoft Surface that needed to be cut open received a score of three. (An upgrade later earned that model's successor two more points.)

Wiens is excited that iFixit is diving into on-demand 3D printing, starting with a component it sells for a coffee maker. He said he’d like to collaborate with companies to create products designed from the outset with components that can be printed in case of a breakdown. "We really think it needs to be a partnership between the repair community and the manufacturer to make it work," he said.

The story of our lives [is] written in our jeans. People will resonate with that far more than with a disposable, unrepairable, unresolvable product.

Since the pandemic hemmed most of society into their homes, iFixit has seen a spike in searches for fixing devices, laptops and the Nintendo Switch. Last week, it dove into new territory and activism by publishing 13,000 manuals for medical devices, everything from hospital bed headboards to nebulizers to scales, becoming the world’s largest source of details for medical repairs. The company is hoping this ambitious effort will lighten the workloads of the exhausted biomedical technicians who keep hospital equipment humming and beeping.

For better or worse, most appliances rely on human muscle and brainpower for longevity. But information technology is beginning to change some of this. 

Boyd is intrigued by the possibility of "self-healing" electronics that reconstitute or repair themselves, made possible by artificial intelligence and machine learning. AI already helps predict when a laptop battery will fail.

Also further out, and in Dell’s planning stages, is how to augment and design equipment that improves over the course of a decade or two. Product-as-a-service models could become part of an industry transformation, he said, eliminating the need for companies to keep up revenues by releasing whole new lines of modestly updated electronics every year.

"We’re having an interesting moment in technology right now, with the birth of 5G and strong cloud connectivity — we can make products in the future that don't degrade; they actually get better," Boyd said.

Dillinger, on the other hand, wants to remind people to "get a little analog" and take a stab at sewing a button. iFixit has directions for that, too.

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