7 Kettles 1 Planet

Still boiling my water after 19 years.

Still boiling my water after 19 years.

A few years ago I found myself clearing out the attic in my late father’s house. This had been the family home for over forty years, and the attic had become the final destination for a wealth of objects that had previously lived downstairs: toys, suitcases, cloudy mirrors and curiously six kettles. My father was from the generation that didn’t throw things away.

These kettles stopped me in my tracks, as I realised that they had all sat in the same spot in the kitchen for my entire life. I took them down to the kitchen and attempted to arrange them in chronological order. Here I added the seventh kettle, the final and most emotive one as it was the last one my parents used, to me it represented the end of our family life in our family home.

I must have spent an hour just looking at that final kettle, and thinking of its simple yet central function to family life: the coming together over a cup of tea or coffee, to sit, talk and share time together. It would never boil again and was being consigned to history.

Then I looked at the very first kettle, and this made me realise just much the world has changed since it first arrived in my parent’s kitchen, especially in terms of consumerism.

This first kettle was given to my parents as a wedding present from my aunt and uncle in 1957, it was stainless steel, with a black handle and what seemed like an industrial scale lead that plugged into to. It didn’t have a switch to turn it on, you just switched it on at the socket. This meant it would boil dry if you didn’t keep an eye on it, and as a child I had kettle envy as our neighbours has the same kettle, but the automatic version with a big red switch on the body of the kettle, and it magically turned itself off when the water had boiled. This impressed me a lot.

Every few years my mother would take the kettle on the bus to the town centre where it would visit the repair shop. Here it would have a new element fitted so it could keep boiling. In fact most of the things in our house that had a plug attached to them at some point visited the repair shop. A new cord for the iron, a new brush for the vacuum cleaner, you name it, if it could get fixed it got fixed.

This is why the first kettle kept boiling for some thirty years, and why I was taken aback when I returned home from university one summer to find it had gone, replaced by a white plastic kettle. Yes it was automatic, but it wasn’t the kettle I grew up with, it didn’t feel as solid and I decided there and then I didn’t like it. Kettle number two didn’t last long, and was followed by a succession of ever cheaper, more fanciful kettles that never got repaired and just went to the attic. The most objectionable one had to be the clear glass round one, with the most nasty looking chrome effect plastic lid and handle.

Whereas kettle number one lasted thirty years, it took a further six kettles to last a similar amount of time. They weren’t designed to be repaired, they weren’t built to last. From the 1950’s when you had a choice of a manual or automatic electric kettle, the consumerist world had evolved to give us a huge choice of kettles, in different styles and colours to suit every taste. Many are cheap to buy and all to easy to dispose of.

Looking online and John Lewis, has some 62 different kettles on sale ranging in price from £20 to, wait for it a whopping, £499.95 for a limited edition electric kettle. You can buy an Artisan kettle that: “takes the monotony out of boiling water” or how about an Architect kettle described as being; “resilient and stylish, this kettle makes boiling water an art form.” Who knew a kettle could be so life enhancing.

On the Argos site you get even more choice with 123 kettles on offer with a starting price of just £4.99 - this kettle has been massively reduced from its original price of £7.99 and is one of twenty two kettles available for less than £20.

Ultimately, this boils down to a huge amount of choice for a product that only has to perform one function, and for the sake of the environment it really is time to challenge this excessive consumerism. In the case of my parents instead of owning seven kettles during their lifetime, if after thirty years of service their original one had been replaced with a repariable one of similar they would have only needed two kettles.

Unfortunately, the repair shop has long since closed as consumers have been lured into the exciting world of limitless choice and the thrill of added features underpinned by the bargain buying culture.

So they would have consumed five less kettles. As just one family that doesn’t sound like a lot, but multiplied across every household in the UK and suddenly you realise that we have unnecessarily consumed and disposed of many millions of kettles. Then think of all the other electrical appliances that have suffered the same fate, and think about this happening in the households across the developed world and you start to sense the phenomenal scale of waste mass consumerism has already generated.

Of course manufacturers, retailers and even governments would offer resistance if we started to consume less, and demand better quality products that could be repaired. It’s totally counter to the current capitalist way of life. However, this current method of consumption offers no real benefit to consumers, the underpaid workers who make the products, and ultimately is harmful to the environment.

On a personal level, I’ve believed for a long time that it’s better to consume fewer, but better quality products. So my kettle, (the one in the photo at the start of this post.) is currently 19 years old. At £79 it was expensive to buy, but that works out at £4.16 per year which seems more than reasonable, and as it was made in Germany it didn’t have to travel across the world to get to me. I’ve no intention of changing it, and hopefully it will keep boiling water for a number of years to come. When it does stop working, I don’t think it will be possible to repair, however its replacement will be chosen with care, and yes I will have an expectation that it should last for at least twenty years.

To help ensure the long term sustainability of our planet, I truly believe it will be critical for consumer habits to embrace:

  • buying less

  • buying locally and ethically

  • demanding longevity

  • alternative choices, including community based libraries of everything, upcycling and recycling.

A friend of mine has a wonderful saying: “Buy cheap, buy twice.” It would seem when it comes to kettles it really is a case of “Buy cheap, buy time and time and time again.” The disposable nature of many consumer goods, is unacceptably wasteful on a scale that is damaging our environment, and needs to be challenged in order to combat climate change.

This is the perfect opportunity to take a moment to think about how many kettles you’ve thrown away. And importantly, to ask how many more kettle are you going to throw away?