Martine Postma, founder and director of Repair Café International Foundation
When I started the very first Repair Cafe in October 2009, I had no idea that ten years later, there would be a worldwide movement of passionate volunteers, each of them promoting repair in their own communities. Still, this is exactly what happened. Apparently people worldwide are ready for change, ready to say goodbye to our throwaway society and move toward a more sustainable way of living, with less waste and more care — for products, for the environment, and for each other.
As director of Repair Café International Foundation, I have seen the network grow — starting in Amsterdam and spreading from there to Belgium, Germany, France, and beyond, now reaching as far as the United States, Canada, Australia, and even India and Japan. In the United States there are now more than a hundred Repair Cafe locations. And this is just the beginning!
Community Repair Meetings Are Useful, and Fun!
There is room for a Repair Cafe or similar initiative in every community across the United States — across the world, really — because community repair meetings are useful, and they’re fun. They bring people together and prevent waste. And in our busy lives they slow people down and connect them with their inner sense of what is right.
When you sit down and take the time to make a repair, you realize that this is a normal thing to do. You become aware that the normal reaction when something breaks is not “I need to get a new one” but “I need to fix this” or “I need to have this repaired.”
Since 2009 I have done a lot of thinking about how we got here, how we arrived in a situation where throwing away instead of repairing is considered to be the default, where consequently we create huge amounts of waste and use up the world’s natural resources much too fast by creating new products every day. I have also been thinking about what we can do to turn this around.
The community repair movement has an important role to play here, in putting repairability on the agenda, creating public debate, and showing — one repair at a time — that there is a solution, that a sustainable way of living, without unnecessary waste, is within reach.
Establishing more Repair Cafes and similar initiatives is part of that solution. But it’s not the only solution. Products break every day, whereas Repair Cafes — run by volunteers — are usually open only once or twice a month. This naturally limits their impact. To really be able to compete with cheap new products that are available everywhere, every day, repair needs to be available in every community on a daily basis too.
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In a genuine repair society, people should always be able to go somewhere for a repair, and they should have a choice: making the repair themselves, repairing their item together with a volunteer, or bringing their item to a professional repairer and paying for the repair. All of these options should be available for everyone, every day, just like new products are.
Building a Circular Economy
In 2019, Repair Café International Foundation and its partners in the Netherlands started to investigate this future scenario in an experiment with circular craft centers (circulaire ambachtscentra in Dutch). These are spaces where products can get a second life when they’re broken or when the current owner wants to get rid of them.
Circular craft centers are part of the Netherlands’ strategy to become a fully equipped circular economy. In such an economy, resources are preserved and can be used over and over again. That’s quite a change from the current linear economy, based on perpetual extraction of raw materials to create new products, which after a period of use are discarded as waste and burned or sent to a landfill.
Product reuse is the central focus of the circular craft centers, which should combine a variety of facilities that are now only available separately: a recycling center, a second-hand store, refurbishing and repair facilities, and maker facilities, where new products can be created from products that cannot be repaired anymore or from products for which there is no demand on the secondhand market.
Circular craft centers should also provide teaching facilities, where young people can learn repair and maker skills, where school classes can visit for a practical course, and where people can attend workshops on various subjects. These centers could be vibrant hotspots, where visitors are inspired for reuse and see what huge possibilities there are after the first life of a product.
Circular craft centers will make repair more widely available and will definitely promote the benefits of repair and reuse among a much broader public. Still, not even circular craft centers can lead the way to a future without unnecessary waste. More is needed for that future to become a reality.
For even if it becomes possible to have a product repaired at any time, that doesn’t mean that every product will be repairable. At this moment, for a great many products it’s still true that newer models are less repairable than older ones. This aspect of planned obsolescence is a serious threat to the potential of the circular economy and should be addressed immediately.
The Need for Repairable Products
It is vital that manufacturers start producing products to fit into the circular economy. These products should be repairable. It should be possible to disassemble them using normal tools, without causing damage to the casing. Also, spare parts should be widely available for longer periods and at affordable prices. And most importantly, manufacturers should share repair manuals openly, so that repairers — professionals and amateurs — will know where to look and what to do when the item needs fixing, instead of having to figure all this out for themselves.
This kind of measure will have to be enforced by law, since there is now no incentive for manufacturers to undertake them voluntarily. They can still make the best profit by selling new products, and their sales are still highest when products are not repairable.
Manufacturers will only change their business model when this is no longer the case, when lack of repairability limits the popularity of a product — when, for instance, an unrepairable product is more expensive than a repairable one. And this won’t change by itself. At this point, consumers could use some help from governments in changing the rules of the game so that sustainable behavior is stimulated and unsustainable behavior is discouraged.
Governments will start implementing this kind of measure when the pressure from society becomes strong enough.
In the past ten years, this pressure has increased enormously. When I started the first Repair Cafe in 2009, repairing was not really an item on the social agenda. There was no wide-reaching public debate about our throwaway society. To me, it seemed that no one really cared that we are polluting the Earth with unnecessary waste, using up the world’s commodity stocks, and losing exactly those skills that make us independent and enable us to solve our own problems.
Now, ten years later, we have a worldwide repair movement, we have the means to collect and share repair data to serve as evidence that measures are needed, we have people standing up for their right to repair and reclaiming control over their possessions. All this increases the political pressure for measures that move us toward more sustainability and more repairability.
The bigger this movement gets, the louder its voice will sound, and the sooner it will reach its goal. Every local citizen around the world can contribute to this progress by helping the community repair movement to grow and to maintain this growth in the coming years. This means that people everywhere should start new Repair Cafes and similar initiatives, thus inspiring and empowering their community and inviting more people to speak up too.
Working for the Future
For this ongoing growth it is also vital that existing Repair Cafes continue their work in the future. This requires that they appeal to younger generations too. In this area there is still much to be done.
Many Repair Cafes are now populated by people over fifty, over sixty, over seventy years old. On the one hand, this is no more than logical: these people are the ones who still possess repair skills, who grew up at a time when repairing was mainstream, and who learned these skills from their parents and in school. These are also the people who have the time to spend as Repair Cafe volunteers or visitors.
On the other hand, the “seniority” of many Repair Cafes is a potential threat to the viability of the movement. Looking at it from the outside, young people might get the idea that repairing is something for old folks, something from the past. Clearly, this is not true. On the contrary — repairing is especially for young people. They are the ones reaching furthest into the future, which makes them the ones who will benefit the most from a sustainable, livable, unpolluted world.
Inspiring Younger Generations
Inspiring younger generations is still a challenge for the community repair movement. However, I am confident that we will manage.
Repair Café International Foundation has created a Repair in the Classroom curriculum for primary schools. In this series of lessons, Repair Cafe volunteers come into the classroom to teach basic repair skills and show the pupils how they can fix beloved but broken items that they have brought from home: a favorite toy, a backpack, their bicycle.
The first experiences with these lessons are promising; kids are eager to work with their hands and to learn new techniques, especially when they themselves can benefit from the results. Someone just needs to show them and help them along.
This will be possible in more places, in more different ways, when repair becomes more widely available. This will further kindle people’s enthusiasm for repair and for a sustainable lifestyle. New forms of repair initiatives could arise, as could new business models for repairable products.
The past ten years have taught me that it is impossible to predict exactly how things will develop and what the future will look like. However, I am sure that we are moving toward a more sustainable society, in which repair has an important position. The circumstances demand it. We simply must do it. So let’s create such a society together, and let’s make it fun too!
A sustainable future is possible. Community repair fits into American society very well. This characteristic, combined with the huge size of the United States, makes the future for Repair Cafes and similar initiatives in this country very promising. It’s this future that I look forward to.
Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com.
This article is written by Martine Postma, and reprinted from the Afterword of the book:
Repair Revolution: How Fixers Are Transforming Our Throwaway Culture
by John Wackman and Elizabeth Knight
Every year, millions of people throw away countless items because they don’t know how to fix them. Some products are manufactured in a way that makes it hard, if not impossible, for people to repair them themselves. This throwaway lifestyle depletes Earth’s resources and adds to overflowing landfills. Now there’s a better way. Repair Revolution chronicles the rise of Repair Cafes, Fixit Clinics, and other volunteer-run organizations devoted to helping consumers repair their beloved but broken items for free.
Repair Revolution explores the philosophy and wisdom of repairing, as well as the Right to Repair movement. It provides inspiration and instructions for starting, staffing, and sustaining your own repair events. Do-it-yourself repair is a way of caring for our lives, our communities, and our planet.
About Martine Postma
The Repair Café was initiated by Martine Postma. Since 2007, she has been striving for sustainability at a local level in many ways. Martine organised the very first Repair Café in Amsterdam, on October 18, 2009. It was a great success.
This prompted Martine to start the Repair Café Foundation. Since 2011, this non-profit organisation has provided professional support to local groups in the Netherlands and other countries wishing to start their own Repair Café. Do you want to know more about the origins of Repair Café? Read the book that Martine wrote (in Dutch). Or invite Martine for a lecture at your company or organisation. Visit RepairCafe.org/en for more information.
About the Book's Authors
TV producer and writer John Wackman founded the first Repair Cafe in New York. He lives in Kingston, New York. Community sustainability activist and organizer Elizabeth Knight is the author of Welcome Home and other books. She lives in Warwick, New York.