Denise Hall: Repair Café gives new life to old stuff

Q&A: Claire Dowling, Repair Café organiser
Old curiosity workshops help reduce volume of goods going into landfill, says Denise Hall.

Remember a time when you were able to get things mended? Items such as hair-dryers, blenders, stereos, TVs, washing machines, cameras.

It seems as if, in that golden age, there was always someone who could fix anything.

And it often seemed to be a retired man who seemed undefeated by any challenge, and who worked in an impossibly crowded small workshop crammed full of spare parts.

This paragon was usually cheerful, full of advice and worldly wisdom and a keen observer of politics and ever willing to share these observations with his customers.

I used to become oddly attached to inanimate objects – elderly toasters from whose interior you learned to snatch your bread just before it burst into flame.

TVs that need a swift slap in just the right place to stop the picture slipping And if that sort of direct action failed, then there was always that patient man in the crowded workroom.

But now there is no one who could make a living by performing such a valuable service, largely because it is no longer economically viable.

The awful truth is even if there was someone who knew what to do; it often costs more to mend something than it does to buy new. And that sad state of affairs is no accident.

But such constant disposal of everyday objects creates pollution, environmental disasters and landfill sites rapidly growing out of control.

So how did a condition that is sometimes referred to as planned or built-in obsolescence come to pass, and can we do anything about it?

Essentially it is the policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life, so it will become obsolete or unfashionable after a defined period of time. The rationale is, of course, to generate sales by deliberately reducing the time between purchases.

Those who pursue these strategies believe that the additional sales revenue generated more than offsets the cost of the constant grind of research and development.

This can be a risky strategy though if customers decide to buy from competitors. But when a market becomes more competitive, product lifespan tends to increase.

For example, when Japanese vehicles with longer lifespan entered the American market in the 1960s and ’70s, American carmakers were forced to respond by building more durable products.

In 1924, the American car market was saturated and Alfred P Sloan, head of General Motors, came up with the idea of annual new car design, to convince car owners they needed to buy new each year. And it was this crafty strategy that became known as “planned obsolescence.”

It had far-reaching effects on the auto business, product design, and eventually, the entire American economy.

Cork’s own Henry Ford did not go for this marketing device however, claiming that simplicity, economies of scale and design integrity were what people wanted. Wrong. GM surpassed Ford’s sales in 1931 and became the dominant company thereafter.

In 1932, economist Bernard London wrote a pamphlet on the subject — entitled ‘Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence’.

He wanted the government to introduce legal obsolescence on consumer articles to encourage consumption.

In the 1950s, Brooks Stevens, an ace advertising executive aptly defined planned obsolescence as “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than necessary.”

The argument continued to rage. Cultural critic Vince Packard accused manufacturers of the “systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals.”

Some products are designed to be impossible to service – cheap throwaway digital watches which may have a casing that’s sealed in the factory, or disposable cameras that are only good for a single use.

But supporter Philip Kotler argues “Much so-called planned obsolescence is the working of the competitive and technological forces in a free society, forces that lead to ever-improving goods and services.”

However, today some organisations in Ireland are encouraging us to reduce, re-use and recycle. One of these is the rapidly growing Repair Café. Organiser Claire Dowling told me all about it.

How did the Repair Café get going Claire?

It was started by Martine Postma from Amsterdam. She had been very involved in working toward sustainability in local levels since 2007 and she organised the first Repair Café in 2009. It was a great success and Martine went on to start the Repair Café Foundation.

Now the Foundation provides professional support to local groups in the Netherlands and other countries wishing to start their own Repair Cafes.

How do these Cafes work?

Well, we’ve all got things that need fixing, haven’t we? The Repair Cafes bring skilled volunteers together with people who have items that need fixing. And it’s all done in a social setting, tea, coffee, snacks and plenty of chat.

Our volunteers give people tips on how they might be able to repair their items themselves, or, in a worse case scenario, let them know that it can’t be fixed. But that is a last resort. The majority of items that people bring in are fixed and this, of course, saves people money and it also cuts down on the amount of wear and tear on the environment.

You started the first one in Dublin I believe?

Yes, in Sandymount and we’ve had several now. They were successful from the start. Now they are running in Kilkenny, Aughrim, Athlone, Tralee and we expect to start up in Cork soon. We are getting enquires all the time.

And anyone who is interested can find out everything they need to know by going onto our site. It’s designed to help new Repair Cafés by networking with volunteers, providing information and ideas and sharing experiences. We’ve also compiled some useful feedback from previous Repair Cafes. We’ve had tremendous support from local authorities.

So you can see this movement spreading across the country?

Oh yes. It works so well. It just makes sense. We still throw away far too much and there are more devices being manufactured every day. And the smaller a device, the more energy and resources they use.

Yet if a screen gets cracked, it gets thrown away. It doesn’t make sense. We encourage people to think about repair first. Now we’re working on getting the software people on board. 


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