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Repair Cafe: Bring Your Broken Doodads and Gadgets

This article was written by in Consumer. 11 comments.


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 ToasterBroken 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?

Photo: phozographer
New York Times

Published or updated May 15, 2012. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar krantcents

I don’t think the consumer drives the disposable items! Iti s the cost of repair that drives the disposable culture. You buy a $20 toaster and it costs more to repair than replace, it just dosn’t make sense.

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avatar Ceecee ♦796 (Dime)

Seems like a tough sell in the U.S. I see things on the curb every weekend that are fine and usable……but there they are on the curb. You could probably furnish a home with what is left on the curb. Personally, I like the fix-it cafe a lot, but I don’t feel the need to always have the latest gizmo.

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avatar Mike Collins

Krantcents is right about the cost of repair. Why bother paying for a temporary fix when you can buy a whole new one for just a few dollars more?

Planned obsolescence is the real culprit. Things just don’t last very long these days. My mom still has the same vacuum she used when I was a kid but since I got married we’ve already gone through 3 or 4 of them.

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avatar Evan

Not sure about a cafe like that but I think a good repairman could make a good business…if you could get costs down. I remember my parents went to fix their TV and it literally cost as much as a brand new one. The repairman almost didn’t understand why they wouldn’t go with him.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,365 (Platinum)

That’s the problem. For a lot of items, it costs less to replace (even replace with an upgrade) than to repair. That’s why these Repair Cafes do the work on a volunteer basis. Plus, as technology advances, more specialized skills or tools are needed to perform repairs, driving up the cost of repairs. In fact, some products are even sold at a loss. Printers are so cheap because the companies make money on the ink… who’s going to pay $400 to fix a $99 printer?

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avatar qixx ♦1,813 (Half-Dollar)

These costs are not always comparable. People will look at buying a new printer vs buying new ink for their current printer. New printers often come with “starter” ink that is smaller than the replacement cartridges. Add these missed variances to the loss that the printer company takes on the printer and people become more likely to look for the replacement. I bought a printer that cost $400 vs a $50 laser jet. Why because the cost of int per page is less and because it is something i can repair. The $50 printer is more likely to cost more to repair than replace. Most people don’t look at the long term and only see a $50 printer and call me crazy for buying a $400 one.

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avatar Nunzio Bruno

Hmm what about the warranty game. Big companies won’t like the idea of their goods being fixed at lower or free costs when they are trying to sell you extended warranties. While I think this could be a really interesting project for a community it would def be an uphill battle. I hate to say it but what about the velocity of money. If spending slows even more would that imply a longer recovery or even the possibility of stagflation if this notion was widely accepted all over the US and every community had a few of these? Just a few thoughts to get a different perspective. Great post and it reminds me to un-junkify my closets/garage.

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avatar Sara

Things that could get repaired at low cost should be repaired instead of buying. There are many cases where cost of repairing is much low as compared to buy a new item. So in my opinion this type of café must be encouraged to have their services especially in a case they are willing/volunteer and as you mentioned it’s free so I think definitely this will change the mind set of people about buying new items instead of repairing but can’t say anything about companies’ attitude.

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avatar Joe Morgan

I blame the IC chip. Integrated circuits have as much to do with this as planned obsolescence… in the early days, electronics and parts were expensive so repair was cost effective and relatively easy to perform, but integrated circuits have lowered costs and made repairs beyond most people. It’s far easier to replace a blown vacuum tube than it is to diagnose and replace an IC chip..

The repair cafe is an interesting concept though…

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avatar Scott

Perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I’m very impressed with the durability of practically everything I own (hope I don’t jinx myself here). My car is 12 years old and never had any issues. Same with most of the electronics and appliances in my house – my 32″ Olevia LCD TV has lasted longer than the company that marketed them. I attribute all this to better manufacturing processes and quality control. If I have to replace a toaster every 20 years, I can live with that.

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avatar Cejay ♦1,521 (Half-Dollar)

I like the idea. I have had a few things in my life that have torn up way before they should. But then me and my husband have gave away or threw away a lot of things that could be repaired. I remember we threw away (at the local dump) a push mower and learned that someone else picked it up and used it for a few years with just a little work. But then I had a small dirt devil hand held vac and it tore up in a few months. It cost more to send to the company or to travel to the repair company. The company was not responsive so I just threw it away.

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