Reviving the art of repair
It’s often cheaper and easier to throw products out than fix them, a reality Michelle Fisher and the Repair Café movement is trying to turn around, one broken mobile phone, record player or pair of shoes at a time.
Much of what we own is designed to be discarded and replaced. Fashion and technology industries entice us to buy the trendiest clothing each season or the latest phone or gadget every couple of years. Planned obsolescence results in items breaking down too soon, where buying a replacement is often cheaper and easier to do than fixing it ourselves.
But this is changing. The art of repair is making a comeback. Repair cafés and similar fix-it initiatives are starting to appear in communities around the world. Repair cafés are free meeting places where volunteer fixers gather to share their repair skills with their neighbours who bring in their bikes, clothing, appliances and other household goods that need mending. The sessions are usually held on a regular (often monthly) basis in cafés, community centres and at various other halls and venues around town.
Repair cafes in Australia
Australia is host to five repair cafés, with numbers growing. Repair cafés have been set up in Mullumbimby and Marrickville, in Albury-Wodonga and Melbourne and, most recently, in Highgate Hill near Brisbane. New mending initiatives are being trialled elsewhere in Victoria and in Tasmania. Over the last six months, Mend it Melton and Repair Café Seymour have started holding repair sessions, with Bendigo Repair Café actively planning their launch in the coming months. The concept has swept through Tasmania under the auspices of Zero Waste Tasmania and Permaculture Tasmania, who have offered to support local groups across the state to host an initial mending workshop as a taster before communities decide to set up repair cafés on a more ongoing basis.
The repair café model was first established by Martine Postma in Amsterdam in 2009. Since then, Postma has set up the International Repair Foundation to support local groups in the Netherlands and other countries to establish repair cafés in their own communities. There are now over 1200 repair cafés in more than 30 countries.
Who’s involved in repair cafes?
So what motivates people to come to a repair café with their broken goods? At the Melbourne Repair Café we see people come in for all sorts of reasons. Commonly, there’s a desire to reduce what goes into landfill accompanied by a feeling of stewardship to better look after the earth and our possessions. Volunteer fixers and visitors alike see the value in keeping the art of repair alive. When something gets fixed during a repair session, you can see the pride and accomplishment on the faces of visitors who have just learned new skills to better look after their things. Sometimes, simple curiosity and the thrill of successfully troubleshooting and problem-solving are the drivers.
Ultimately, the reason people come to the repair café is to extend the lifetime of a cherished item that has served them well – be it a bike they use to cycle with their kids, a dehydrator for preparing meals for camping trips, a vintage record player handed down from their mum which they can play their vinyls on, or their most comfortable pair of jeans which they want to wear for another 10 years. Not having to spend money to buy replacements is a bonus!
Manufacturers get interested
Businesses too are starting to see the value in building for longevity, and in repair. Greater interest is being shown in supporting companies who build things to last, like the BuyMeOnce.com shop. Some manufacturers are also starting to promote and facilitate reuse and repair of their goods. Patagonia’s ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ campaign, for instance, encourages consumers to think twice before buying something new. Patagonia recognises that people cherish their possessions and celebrates this by publishing The stories we wear, which sits alongside their repair guides – DIY guides developed in partnership with iFixit, a free online repair manual with countless videos of how to fix all manner of items.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
Repair is but one part of ‘reuse’ in the three Rs. Fleshed out, reuse can take many forms. In addition to simply using an item again, it can be:
- repurposed – used for a reason it was not designed for (for example, a jam jar used as a vase);
- repaired – allowing the item to continue to be used for its original (or alternative) purpose;
- refurbished – where an item cannot be repaired, finding or building parts or materials to make it usable again;
- rehomed or re-gifted – passing the item onto another person to use, after the owner has finished with using it or simply no longer wants it;
- redesigned, remade or upcycled – taking all or some components from the item to make or merge into something else.
By expanding our notion of what reuse means, we can keep an item in circulation for much longer than if we move more immediately to recycle and, for a lot of goods, disposal. The environmental benefits are clear: the more that materials and goods cycle, the less is extracted from the earth and the less that goes into landfill.
The longer that items are cycling in the economy and society, the less of a drain there is on our resources and the energy to make things, and the more opportunity there is for localised livelihoods in remaking and repair, and in building community through the sharing of skills and stories.
Know your right to repair
The ‘right to repair’ movement in Australia is in its infancy. Repair rights do exist, but are relatively limited. Under the Australian Consumer Law, consumers have a right to request that certain goods be repaired if they break too easily or don’t work properly. Manufacturers must provide spare parts and repair facilities for a ‘reasonable’ time after purchase, where the time for what is reasonable will depend on the nature of the product – is it the sort of item that is generally expected to last a long time, was it relatively expensive (compared to say, other brands), and were claims made about its quality or durability? If the product has a minor problem, you can ask for a free repair and, if the business is unable to fix it, you may be able to get it fixed somewhere else and recover the costs. If a major problem is involved, where the product cannot be fixed or is too difficult to fix, you can ask for a refund or replacement. Consumer law guarantees are over and above any warranty provided by the manufacturer.
These rights are limited, however. They only apply to goods purchased after 1 January 2011. They do not apply at all if you are told at the time of purchase that repair facilities and spare parts will not be available after a specified time. And there is nothing to prevent a manufacturer from making it difficult or impossible to fix things (for example, by designing ‘tamper-resistant’ screws or by gluing components in place) or producing cheap goods designed to fail, such as using relatively fragile parts or connectors internally, sometimes belying how sturdy the unit might appear from the outside. There is also no obligation to provide information or diagnostic tools to allow people to repair their things independently of manufacturers.
In the words of influential online repair community iFixit, which advocates for repair rights: “If you can’t fix it, you don’t own it!”
One area where there are signs of change is the car industry. Over the past six to seven years, independent repairers have campaigned for manufacturers to make vehicle service and repair information more readily available outside of authorised dealer networks. Following a national review in 2011-12 by the Commonwealth Consumer Affairs Advisory Council, in 2014 a voluntary agreement was adopted by automotive industry participants to establish principles for the sharing of automotive repair and service information, with a view to enhancing consumer choice about where they can get their cars repaired and maintained. However, the agreement was criticised as a light-touch regulatory solution by the Australian Automotive Aftermarket Association that represents providers of vehicle service and repair. It was said to be failing due to “the lack of goodwill by the car makers, no monitoring or measurement, no government oversight, no agreed dispute resolution mechanisms, and no implications for non-compliance by the car manufacturers.”
More broadly, if people want to fix their things in a timely, safe and cost-effective way – whether by doing it themselves or taking it to a repair service of their choice – it is essential that access to parts and information is made available. ‘Fair repair’ bills are currently under consideration in six states in the USA, seeking to ensure repair information and parts can be accessed outside of manufacturers’ networks. To find out more about this, go to repair.org.