In today's unsustainable world of goods, where products are desired, purchased, briefly used and then promptly landfilled to make way for more, consumption and waste are rapidly spiralling out of control with truly devastating ecological consequences.
The notion of a ‘throwaway society’ is nothing new, and has been in the public lexicon since 1955. In fact, it was as early as 1932 when American economist Bernard London first introduced the term, 'planned obsolescence' – often referred to as death-dating – as a means to stimulate spending among the very few that had money at that time. This proposed shift toward an increasingly disposable material world was initially proposed as a solution to dark economic crisis experienced during the Great Depression in the US (1929).
The ecological impacts of this drive toward planned product failure could not have been anticipated or understood in the 1930s. Today, however, we are all too aware of the catastrophe-making character of these practices, and they simply cannot continue.
Whether planned or not, things get damaged, and sometimes break. Fact. That favourite pair of shoes, the raincoat that goes camping with you every year or that clutch bag with the delicate strap. What's more, products are not generally designed to be repaired, when they do inevitably fail. Instead, we discard and replace.
We throw away vast amounts of stuff in Europe. Even things with almost nothing wrong, and which could get a new lease on life after a simple repair. Today, fixing has all but disappeared from our experience of everyday life.
Many of us lack the tools, space and skills to engage in the repair process, and for others, the will to roll your sleeves up and fix, simply isn’t there. Repairing might not even occur to many users, as we become evermore socially conditioned out of the making process.
The Repair Café movement is looking to counter this trend through the provision of free meeting places that are all about repairing things – together. Repair Cafés presents an innovative approach to waste reduction, social cohesion and the transference of craft skills, through the act of repairing, upgrading and maintaining a broad range of products. In the simplest form, a needle and thread can work wonders, while products like Sugru (a self setting rubber for fixing, modifying and improving a wide range of things from laptop cables to footwear) enable repair activity on a wider range of products.
With the ethos of collaborative learning at its core, this growing community of fixers will provide a timely opposition to our throwaway society – keeping goods in service for longer, cutting waste and building resilience into our relationships with the many objects that constitute our material world. In Repair Cafés you’ll find tools and materials to help you make any repairs you need. On clothes, shoes, furniture, electrical appliances, bicycles, crockery, appliances, toys and so on. You will also find repair specialists such as electricians, seamstresses, carpenters and bicycle mechanics to help you on your way.
This represents a shift toward what is called the Sharing Economy. Where people can share not only vehicles or other objects such as DIY tools, but also share skills or access to services. This collaborative form of fixing encourages the replacement of shopping (as a stimulus-seeking activity), with more creative and social experiences, centered on the shared act of making and mending.
Beyond a technical skill, fixing may also be described as a way of thinking, a state-of-mind, that connects us in a more direct way with the made world. The group, 'Fixperts' take this a step further by connecting designers with owners of broken or dysfunctional products. Together, they work-up fixes and solutions that overcome the problem, but often enhance the overall functionality of the product in the process. They believe that fixing is a valuable creative and social resource and through their research and engagement with this issue they now know that people all over the world feel the same.
Commercial servicing and repair does exist. After all, if your washing machine breaks, you get it fixed – right? If your car doesn't start, you phone a mechanic. With clothes, there are also repair services on the high street (or more commonly, just off the high street down an alley). Skilled individuals will carry out repairs and alterations to clothes for you, while you wait often. But, oddly enough, very few people engage with this type of service, preferring instead to dispose and repurchase. If your Barbour jacket loses its finish, or gets torn on a barbed wire fence, you return it to Barbour who will re-wax it, and repair the rip. Then, 6-weeks later your old jacket arrives through the mail, but it kind of feels like a new jacket - it's reborn.
Through the act of fixing, would be disposable products are meticulously repaired and upgraded. They are kept for vast periods of time, spanning generations, and become an integral part of that person's life. It is easy to see the potency of this approach as an approach to waste reduction.
These are learning spaces too, where we can skill share, and develop new forms of wisdom, and capability. This form of collective consumption experience can also be experienced through the leasing of products. Leasing represents an essential shift from a culture ofownership, tousership, as Cameron Tonkinwise puts it.
Through fixing, we generate agency, autonomy and empower people to seize back control of their material worlds. Yes, it reduces waste, and cuts consumption, but fixing is about more than that. Indeed, the act of fixing is a form of design intervention, which both restores value, and creates new value, through the process of engagement.