“But it’s less than five years old,” I exclaimed in exasperation, “And it’s only one little key.” The shop’s representative replied that my computer had served me well if it had lasted that long. Five years from a product is great service?
Sadly this exchange is familiar to many of us. Living in a time of planned obsolescence, we are the most intense consumer culture to ever hit the planet. When our things break, it’s tempting to throw them out rather than taking the time to fix them, and manufacturers don’t make it easy for us. By employing tricky tactics like gluing batteries into their devices, or leaving repair instructions out of the operating manuals for the appliances we buy, manufacturers encourage a system that sees us replacing a product that could have years of operation left. Add to this our cultural values of considering ‘new and improved’ as better than yesterday’s model, and we have a big problem.
Thankfully a new movement is afoot where repair enthusiasts are welcomed and revered. The fixer movement, led by screwdriver-wielding souls who are undaunted by a lack of instructions, has the goal of adding ‘repair’ as the forth ‘r’ alongside reduce, reuse, recycle—and it’s gaining momentum.
Repair Cafés: Coming to a Community Near You
Possibly the most widely recognized element of the fixer movement is the “repair café.” Repair cafés are not-for-profit workshops held in various community venues, where people can bring their broken gizmos and gadgets to learn how to fix them from volunteers who have the skills to do the repairs. There seems to be no limit to the type of things that are being fixed in these venues, from vacuums to bikes to clothing to computers, there always seems to be someone who has the know-how.
The cafés got their start in the Netherlands, and they are now popping up across the globe. According to repaircafe.org, 1159 repair cafes regularly take place across six continents and 29 countries. These range from Australia and the UK, right on through to the US. This September, a repair cafe made its way into Ghana, located in the Sub-Saharan Africa.
The fixer movement, led by screwdriver wielding souls who are undaunted by a lack of instructions, has the goal of adding ‘repair’ as the forth ‘r’ alongside reduce, re-use, recycle.
Marsha Henderson, a repair café organizer, says that encouraging people to climb on the fixit train is extremely gratifying. “One way we encourage a ‘repair-it’ perspective is to offer the option of helping someone to ‘fix-it’ themselves; with tools, assistance and a bit of encouragement, they’re often successful and their delight is really rewarding to see! Repairing things in this environment can be surprisingly easy and it’s always fun.” Henderson also notes the untapped knowledge that is other people. “The big surprise for me was learning how many repairers we have in our community, how generous they are with their time and knowledge.”
Repair cafés are also places where generations can build off each other’s skill sets. For example, older generations are often better with sewing than the younger generation, who tend to be more natural with electronics. There are many talents to draw from in a community.
But repair cafés aren’t the only way to participate in the fixer movement. Websites offering advice and instruction on how to fix things are also making it possible for people to get handy. Sites like fixya.com allow you to find out how to do your own repairs in a wide variety of areas, such as fixing computer products, cameras, and automobiles. On ifixit.com, an apparel section tells how to fix clothing, eyeglasses, and shoes, among other things. One post asking how to patch a pair of jeans receives 12 answers. Kyle Wiens, the CEO and co-founder of the site, even advises how to get around the glued-in battery issue. (Using a hairdryer to soften the glue and then scraping it off with a paint scraper apparently works wonders.)
Fixers Set the Wheels of Change in Motion
hanks to grassroots community efforts, the fixer movement is flourishing around the world. It is also receiving a leg up from some political leaders. Sweden’s is the first government to offer tax incentives for fixers. Starting in 2017, the country will provide a 50 percent tax refund for repairs to appliances such as refrigerators, stoves and washing machines, as well as a cut in sales tax for repairs on smaller objects. This will reduce the typical tax from 25 percent to 12 percent.
In the US, Massachusetts became the first state to pass a Right to Repair law in 2012 pertaining to automobiles. Last year, four more states started considering Right to Repair laws, which require manufacturers to provide product repair information to consumers. Although that process is still in the works, more states are expected to join in this year.
In March of 2015, the French government passed legislation to protect consumers from poorly made products by making it mandatory for manufacturers of electrical appliances to provide a two-year warranty on their products—at the minimum. The legislation also compels manufacturers to make parts available for repairs after the guarantee period expires.
Don’t fill the Dump! How to Join the Fixer Movement
The groundswell of support for fixers and their can-do attitude is growing around the world. Here’s what you can do to get on board and share the ethos of the fixer movement.
1. Check your own attitude:
Get curious and be mindful. Do you really need that next new thing? If something is broken, can you fix it yourself or find help from someone who can? Fixing things may take more time than simply purchasing new ones, but the act of making something work again can be extremely rewarding. Additionally, fixing things is not always as complicated or as high-tech as you might think.
2. Do your research:
Before you buy a product, research its track record by consulting consumer review websites or magazines such as Consumer Reports. Access to fee-based consumer information is often available through your local library for free—just ask your librarian. Other opinions are shared through product reviews on retailers’ websites. Avoiding faulty products from the beginning is a good way to ensure you’re not fixing things when you don’t have to.
3. Go for lifelong:
Look for companies that offer lifetime or extended warranties on products. Companies like Lifestraw stand by their products, offering warranties up to 50 years in some cases. Others like Onsight make durable products from recycled materials in colors that never go out of style. Look to The Manual for a list of manufacturers that provide lifetime guarantees on products including tools, footwear, and clothing. For gardening gear with lifetime warranties consider Dramm products like water timers, and soaker hoses.
4. Visit a repair café:
If you want to get in on the thrill of fixing something in the company of others, check out repaircafe.org to find out the location of a repair café near you. Some cafés have a bell to ring when something is successfully fixed. Go earn a chance to ring it and listen to the relieved cheers of other frustrated people with broken things!
5. Start your own repair café:
Go to repaircafe.org and ask for a repair café starter kit. The kit includes a repair café manual, templates for announcement posters and flyers, in addition to templates for various forms, and many more perks. Don’t forget to buy your own bell for ringing!
6. Use fixit sites:
Some of the sites mentioned even sell specific parts needed, as well as small toolkits. Three-dimensional printers now make it possible to create certain broken parts and the tools required to fix all those devices.
7. Ask your government to support you:
Write to your local politicians and urge them to pass the Right to Repair laws that make manufacturers responsible for helping you to fix, rather than replace, your stuff.
Ring That Bell
We don’t have to give in to planned obsolescence and spending our money for a quick replacement. Imagine the snicker you can have at your own ingenuity, or the swagger you can strut once you fix that thing that conked out on you. Get your hairdryers at the ready and your paint peelers poised: we can scrape our way to fixing rather than spending.
I confess, I did end up having to get a new computer with a comma button, but I have since held onto an electric toothbrush that stopped working after several months. Now I am going to my nearest repair café to see if I can glean some knowledge, polish some skills, and earn a chance to ring that bell.