Solder, Stitch, Patch: Fix Your Life with Repair Matters
So, your iPod battery won’t hold a charge, and your toaster now burns your bagels six months after you got it. What do you do with them? Throw them away?
How many times have you heard someone say, “They don’t make them like they used to?” Your grandmother’s stove or washing machine lasted for decades, but the expensive range you bought last year is designed to be replaced within five to seven years.
This is what we call planned obsolescence. In The Story of Stuff, we describe how Stuff that’s built to break contributes to our overflowing landfills. So many of us have grudgingly settled into the pattern of buying a new, cheap replacements, rather than embarking on a quest to fix our Stuff. We’ve all found ourselves discouraged by the dwindling number of repair shops and the sometimes a large repair fee to extend a product’s usefulness. It’s a worrying trend.
But the last decade has brought a real rebirth to the DIY, maker and repair movements. Along with the wave of tool libraries that are popping up around the globe, repair cafés, repair popups, bike kitchens and so much more are coming to life and (yes, we’ll say it) disrupting the make-take-waste cycle that defined the last century.
Repair Matters was started by four women in Vancouver. They wanted to bring together talented tinkerers and fixers at community events to show people that their items can have a longer life. What began as a simple grad project has now evolved into a full-fledged community.
After working on a project to reduce textile waste, Jayde Chang wanted help people be more interested in repair projects. Karen Byskov developed an interest in repair after she realized that creating new products isn’t always the best way to solve design challenges. Jessica Beketa grew up watching her dad fix all sorts of things, which drove her interest in cradle-to-cradle systems and working toward a zero waste world. She is passionate about environment-centered design. Shea O’Neil wanted to reduce waste, and saw the repair movement as a way to make a real difference. Like Jessica, Shea grew up with a grandfather who fixed all sorts of things and a neighborhood cobbler who kept everyone in shoes.
“My dad was our household handyman. He fixed things around the house – plumbing, sinks, cars, electronics. If I had a problem with my bike, he would figure it out and fix it. He taught me how to properly maintain my bike and my car.” Jessica laughed. “Isn’t your dad always that guy?”
It was only when she got to university, that Jessica realized that not everyone had a handyman dad. She noticed how often people threw things away without trying to repair them, and how few places there were to take things to be repaired. It started her thinking about how to change that.
Since June 2015, Repair Matters has held events once or twice a month where members of the Vancouver community are invited to bring a broken, portable item (so, no washing machines) and learn how to fix it.
Jayde says, “We have found that many people don’t repair because they are scared they’ll make a mistake, they don’t have the right tools or don’t want to try because it’s unfamiliar.”
People tell the women that they think repairs are only for large, big-ticket items (like that washing machine). But these days, plenty of smaller items have a big price. Besides, even low-cost smaller Stuff can be a great place to start learning repair techniques. If it’s broken and you are thinking of getting rid of it, what do you have to lose at this point? And you might gain a functioning item and avoid a hit to your wallet. Win-win.
Over and over again, the founders have seen that once people work with the repair experts, look over their shoulders and spend some time troubleshooting, they feel a lot more comfortable. Once they can actually work on something small, whether it is stitching a button back on, soldering a cord back together or figuring out how to open up an iPod and put in a new battery, people feel more confident and look at their other belongings as having the potential for repair, rather than disposable items to be replaced.
You don’t think your stuff can be repaired? You might be right.
“We are always disappointed when we aren’t able to help someone repair or troubleshoot because we’re faced with a product that’s not designed with repair in mind. We’ve seen irons and coffee grinders purchased in recent years that are nearly impossible to open up and troubleshoot without breaking them.” Jessica says. (Don’t worry: there’s a coalition working on winning us the right to repair everything!)
Irons are definitely the worst, Jessica says. On more than one occasion, members have brought irons in to be fixed and as a whole, they have proven to be difficult to open and repair, and many times the meeting organizers have had to decide if they should break the iron open on the off chance they are able to fix it after all, or just give up.
Even if they are unsuccessful, far from being the end of an effort to repair something, it gives Repair Matters a chance to talk to community members about the benefits of buying quality-made products, or used models and continuing to attempt to repair items before thinking about recycling or buying new.
While recycling is a good option, Repair Matters stresses the activity of repair, as opposed to recycling, which they believe, “is often used as an excuse for the continued creation of products and waste.”
If Repair Matters knows of a good, quality brand, they do recommend it when they have to admit defeat over a item, so they can buy a better replacement item that will last longer.
“We encourage people to do their research and buy the best item they can,” Jessica says. But those irons have been a thorn in their side.
“One woman bought a cheap $8 iron, and of course it broke, so she did do some research and bought a much better quality iron,” Jessica says, “and after only about a year, that one broke, too, so she brought it to a meeting. But we couldn’t fix the electronics – and what do irons need with electronics anyway? – and so it was frustrating.”
When an item does die a quick death and resists fixing, Repair Matters also encourages people to contact the company and to boycott their products in the future. Perhaps that will clue companies in that consumers don’t want cheap products anymore.
Since the beginning, Repair Matters has been traveling to different neighborhoods in Vancouver to reach more people, and there is no item too old, too complicated, too simple or too small to bring to a repair event. They have fixed headphones, laptop chargers, sewed buttons back on, patched bike tires and troubleshot personal electronics of every brand and type.
What is the most rewarding thing about repair events? Besides resuscitating that toaster?
Jessica likes to see the cherished items that people sometimes bring that have been in their families for decades. Even though these items don’t work, they kept them out of sentimentality.
One woman brought in a concertina (small accordion) that had been in her family for years. Miraculously, at the meeting that night was someone who knew how to fix musical instruments and they were able to restore it to working order. It was pretty amazing, Jessica says.
“And you can totally see the difference in craftsmanship between the items that people bring in that are decades old, and newer products. The older items are usually much better made, compared to many recent products.” That really comes as no surprise.
Meeting new community members, hearing personal stories and bringing people together is rewarding all by itself, but traveling to different neighborhoods allows the Repair Matters group to experience a different community with new connections each time. No matter where it takes place, seeing people of all ages come together to talk and learn leaves the founders feeling warm and fuzzy.
“Hearing from people that they learned something new, whether it’s a new skill (how to solder or stitch or patch a tire) or information (where to find a replacement part, brands that have well-made products, useful tools and interesting hacks/tricks), always gives us a good feeling,” Karen says.
The women’s biggest goal is to make repair as accessible and easy as possible for anyone. To break the buy-break-buy cycle by not only extending the life of as many currently owned objects as they can, but to encourage people to use their dollars to support brands that can be fixed, that have quality construction and that are designed to last. If people move away from buying cheap, disposable items that are designed to break and fail, and demand better products – then we will really make an impact.
We’re working for a future where we single-use or made-to-break products become a thing of the past; where brands design and make quality products; and where we will feel confident that we can buy less Stuff, fix our Stuff, and own our quality Stuff for a long, long time. Won’t you join us in making that future a reality?