Repair in the Community: report back from the #Traidtalks series

The Mending Bloc at London’s Climate March in November 2015. Photo credit: David Stelfox

The Mending Bloc at London’s Climate March in November 2015. Photo credit: David Stelfox

Words by Kim Garratt


Last Thursday, I got to listen to three leaders in London’s repair community. Academic and ‘professional encourager’ Bridget Harvey of the Hackney Fixers, co-founder of the Restart Project Janet Gunter, and blogger Jen Gale of My Make Do And Mend Life were all asked to report on their experience of the repair movement in the UK, and where they see it going in the future.

The talk was the 8th in a series run by London’s TRAID – an organisation that works to divert clothes from landfill and raise funds to improve working conditions in the textile industry and reduce its environmental impacts. The audience straggled through the rain and traffic jams and the last minute voting rush into Old Street’s Ziferblat (which I highly recommend as a venue).

The speakers began by voicing the unstated fears we all have about repairing our stuff: we assume that we aren’t qualified. That we don’t have the tools or the skills. That we’re not allowed. Or that we’ll ‘make it worse.’

I’m not British, but my granddad is, and both he and my grandma used to make and mend anything they could around the house. My grandma was a seamstress, and my granddad just a white-collar worker, but they nonetheless had a mythically dark and dusty shed in the backyard, its shelves stacked with a prodigious amount of tools, spare parts, and found objects that might come in handy one day. This mentality of tinkering and of lovingly repairing old things – of patches on knees and elbows, of investing in quality objects and paying your local community cobbler or upholsterer to restore much-loved items for years of further life – seems to have fallen by the wayside.

For the last several decades, we’ve been escalating full tilt as a throwaway culture. But this isn’t entirely down to consumer choice: multinational manufacturers are working hard to create and maintain monopolies on the repair of their products, making it more attractive –and in some cases cheaper – for buyers to discard and buy brand new than to keep using their existing item. Many large manufacturers like Toshiba actively litigate against anyone caught sharing their repair manuals. The widespread consumer preference to replace rather than repair benefits manufacturers and retailers more than it benefits us.

But the environment can’t absorb all the trash that’s being left behind by unnecessary obsolescence. More than 1 billion smartphones are bought brand new every year. Fortunately, we seem to have hit peak replacement rate – consumers are starting to admit they’d rather not change handsets quite so often, and would prefer items designed to last a little longer. We’re starting to see new tech like the Fairphone, which is designed to be easily repaired and upgraded to keep up with the latest technology, rather than be replaced by the next model.

We can find the tools, and we can learn the skills. And once your item has broken, you can’t make it more broken by having a go. If the alternative is landfill, or scrap recycling, you might as well try, right? Appliances in your home are easier to fix than you’d think: smashed phone screens, toasters, blenders, teacups, armchairs, bikes, laptops and even microwaves are often within your power to repair at home, or at a local community skill-share. If you live in London, then you’re lucky enough to live inside one frontier of an emerging global culture that values mending, promotes the right to repair, and seeks to ensure that fixing skills are shared instead of lost for good.

Across London you’ll find workshops and free community events where you can darn your socks, patch your jeans, mend a hem, and borrow the tools and knowledge to repair your mobile phone along with anything else that has a battery or plugs into the wall. And if you’d rather not learn the skills or spend the time, then this movement is still for you – just hand your items over to some of the many skilled repairers in your local community, and support local jobs.

So what does the near future of the community repair movement look like? How could the currently disparate and dispersed communities evolve and grow?

Bridget Harvey and Janet Gunter envision a network of physical spaces or ‘fixing ecosystems’ where people come to repair or get things repaired; to learn, share, trade or combine skills; to lend and borrow tools and resources; and to trial new models for making repair and reuse financially viable for consumers and skilled technicians, and even designers and manufacturers.

Janet pointed out that the burgeoning repair movement doesn’t need to be perceived as a threat by manufacturers, and that in future there could even be communication and collaboration for mutual benefit. Repair centres create data that manufacturers can use, while manufacturers could choose, for example, to release 3D printer schematics for appliance parts that are now out of production, helping to extend the life of older models (and thus mitigate their contribution to landfill and CO2 emissions).

Jen Gale added that taking her mending journey online has enabled her to connect with and inspire vastly more people she would have been able to engage in real life. All three speakers agreed that while the Internet is the best resource for repair manuals and how-to-guides, it’s incredibly useful to have someone next to you who you can ask ‘what happens if I put pressure on this component here?’ or ‘can I really open up this bit?’ or ‘can you show me how you darned that’ and so on. Finding a repair community – whether it’s online or IRL – is essential to making fixing fun, creating lasting self-confidence in repair skills, and growing the movement.

Some starting points:

  • @bhmakesBridget Harvey
  • @JanetGunterJanet Gunter
  • @makeandmendlife – Jen Gale
  • #VisibleMending – a celebration, gallery, and nebulous how-to-guide in the twitterverse
  • Restart Parties – free community events to repair electrical and electronic items. There have been 85 Restart Parties in London since 2012, saving 1270kg of waste from landfill and preventing 25.8 tonnes of CO2 emissions (+ toolkits available to help you host your own)
  • Hackney Fixers – community group hosting all sorts of mending workshops and events
  • Map of Fixing Places in Hackney – places where you can get things fixed, fix them yourself, or learn about fixing in Hackney
  • Brixton Remakery a co-operative workshop that aims to divert waste from landfill while supporting the Brixton community to increase their skills, confidence and employability
  • South London Makerspace – a community-run space for makers and menders. Occasional Restart Party venue
  • – this US-based advocacy group have achieved policy change to ‘put owners back in control of their own digital electronics’
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation – a group of technologists, activists and attorneys defending civil liberties in the digital world. The EFF is a powerful supporter of owners’ right to repair, and have published more than one or two brilliant insights into the issue

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