In Amsterdam, community members are gathering at cafés, not for a cup of coffee, but to fix broken toasters and vacuum cleaners. Started as a small volunteer-based center, the Repair Cafe has become a success story, attracting more than $525,000 in funding. “In Europe, we throw out so many things,” said Martine Postma, the journalist who came up with the idea. “It’s a shame, because the things we throw away are usually not that broken. There are more and more people in the world, and we can’t keep handling things the way we do.”
The Repair Cafe reminds us that our definition of “broken” has radically changed over the past 50 years. We used to sew patches on ripped clothing and wrap duct tape around frayed extension cords, but now it’s easier, and often cheaper, to just purchase a replacement. “This cost 5 or 10 euros,” said a women, referring to a black H&M skirt she brought to the Repair Cafe. “It’s a piece of nothing, you could throw it out and buy a new one. But if it were repaired, I would wear it.”
The movement towards repair isn’t just bound to Amsterdam; a small gallery in Brooklyn, New York, now invites community members to bring in their broken and worn belongings. “Anyone can bring something in and tinker with it. If you don’t fix it, you can turn it into something else,” said gallery owner Tammy Pittman. “We turned an MP3 player into a telephone. Somebody once turned a shoe into a lamp.” Now known as the Fixers Collective, not only do participants save money by revamping their goods, they also learn how something works by tinkering with broken parts.
This approach hearkens back to earlier habits. “In the early decades of industrialization, people might pass down, repair, or sell service products like ovens, refrigerators, and phones to junk dealers,” writes architect and designer William McDonough. “Today most so-called durables are tossed. Who on Earth would repair a cheap toaster today? It is much easier to buy a new one than it is to send the parts back to the manufacturer or track down someone to repair it locally.” Instead of this constant disposability, McDonough envisions a cradle-to-cradle approach to design that encourages companies to create waste-free products.
Even with do-gooders like McDonough, it will never be easy to persuade companies to create long-lasting products. It’s no secret that many retailers practice planned obsolescence, deliberately designing and manufacturing objects to have a short lifespan so that consumers constantly purchase new versions and throw out the old. The Repair Cafe and various other fix-it groups emerging around the world are an example of how people are taking matters into their own hands to completely redefine consumption. It appears we have the beginnings of a fix-it economy, where the most highly valued skill is the ability to mend.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.