We live in an era of cheap, disposable goods. My closet full of clothing, much of it rarely worn, even though I sort through my wardrobe about once a year to eliminate items I no longer need, is a good indicator of this situation. For a good period when I was a kid, I wore hand-me-down clothes — as the eldest child, I received clothing from a family friend — and when an item became damaged, my mother fixed it with her sewing machine.
Prices for clothes have certainly increased over the last few decades, but clothing is not expected to last. When a piece of clothing becomes damaged, it’s easier and cheap enough to replace.
Broken kitchen appliances, lamps, and other household devices past their warranty periods can’t be fixed with a sewing machine. Many would need specialized care by a professional, and with today’s disposable consumer culture, many people just opt for replacement rather than finding a repair shop and paying nearly as much money as they would to buy a new item.
Additionally, retailers and manufacturers have embraced the concept of planned obsolescence. To keep manufacturing costs low and to maximize profits, there is little concern for making products that last as long as their owners. This is a primary feature of high technology — a house phone sold fifty years ago may still function properly today, but a cell phone purchased five years ago not only doesn’t keep up with the latest technology, but it likely doesn’t work at all. Furniture built in the eighteenth century was made to last in a family for generations; IKEA furniture might last a few years under regular stress of use.
In Amsterdam, there is a small movement in opposition to this disposable consumer culture. The community has come together to repair its members’ broken items. Volunteers bring their tools and sewing machines to an open building several times a month and offer to fix any broken item brought to the gathering. This Repair Café helps reduce waste by encouraging reuse of broken items, and makes fixing an affordable alternative to replacement.
The government in the Netherlands, private groups, and individual donors have helped the Repair Café Foundation raise $525,000 over the past few years, and these funds have helped the organization create these gatherings at various locations across the country. These Repair Cafés provide a chance for consumers to make better use of their goods and for volunteers, particularly those with repair skills that might no longer be in demand, use those skills for a good cause.
Would Repair Cafés; be welcome in the United States? It’s not exactly a profitable business venture, and as such, is unlikely to draw much attention. The model, however, could easily be recreated, perhaps in low socioeconomic neighborhoods, to provide a money-saving alternative for spending money to replace slightly damaged items. Strong marketing encouraging consumers to exist in a cycle of buying and replacing comes at a price to retailers and manufacturers. If these expenses were redirected towards making better, durable products without planned obsolescence, consumers might lose the desire to constantly have new items, and would be able to hold onto the same products for a longer period of time. There would be less waste. Companies and their shareholders would find they have more loyal, life-long customers. Customers would shop with a focus on the differentiation in quality rather than with their tunnel-vision focused solely on price. Companies that build their products to last would succeed while those focused on the short-term would fail.
Could Repair Cafés be an answer to the consumer culture of disposable products? Would the availability of free repairs in the United States change the way consumers buy goods, and thus force companies to build products that are made to last rather than go obsolete? Is the trend towards disposability reversible at all?
Published or updated May 15, 2012.