We spoke with Martine Postma, the founder and director of the Repair Café International Foundation. After many years of writing about sustainability and environmental issues as a journalist, she wanted to do more than raising awareness about waste production. In 2009, she developed the concept of the Repair Café to actively try and change people’s behavior. What started in Amsterdam has now become a global movement with more than 2000 local Repair Café groups in 36 countries.
1014: In Amsterdam, the city of the first Repair Café, do you observe a changing mentality or increasing awareness towards repairing, mending, and upcycling items versus consuming new products?
Martine Postma: Yes, I do. Amsterdam has over 20 Repair Cafés now, and this number is still growing. People are beginning to see that we need to change the way we consume, that we need to stop throwing things away and creating so much waste. The municipality has recently adopted the so called “doughnut model” to help the city strive in balance with the planet. Part of this strategy should be to further strengthen the repair infrastructure in Amsterdam.
The mentality towards our consumption pattern is not only changing in Amsterdam, it is changing worldwide. When I started the first Repair Café in 2009, repairing was not what people did. The default reaction when things broke was: ‘Oh, I need to get a new one.’ And that is still what many people think. However, the big difference now is that everyone is more aware of the fact that we are polluting the earth and we are running out of raw materials. Also, people are realizing that manufacturers are actively hindering repair and are therefore forcing consumers to buy new stuff. More and more people do not want to be in this dependent position anymore. They are claiming their ‘Right to Repair’, activists are conducting lawsuits against manufacturers. That is all radically different from the situation 10 years ago.
1014: How does a Repair Café work? Who is organizing it and how do people gain the knowledge to fix their items? Can you describe a typical repair session? What kind of support does your foundation give to new Repair Cafes in other European cities?
Martine Postma: In a Repair Café, handy people from the community volunteer and help their less handy neighbors to repair beloved broken items. Repair Cafés are typically organized by small groups of citizens who want to do something good – for the environment, and for the community. They find “repairers” in their own circles – self-taught people who have been tinkering in their own homes for decades. In my experience, repair experts are everywhere, and they readily get engaged when someone takes the initiative for a Repair Café.
For a typical Repair Café session, repair experts gather with their tools at a community center or other suitable location open to the public, usually once every two weeks. People come with their broken items, take a seat at the table, and try to repair the item together with the expert. The idea is that people see what is wrong, what needs to be done, and that they repair the item themselves with help from the expert. People find out that a problem sometimes can easily be solved with just a little creativity, just a little attention and good care. When they succeed, they feel good about themselves: “You’ve solved your own problem!” Over time, this can change a person’s mentality towards more independence and resourcefulness. That is what we need for a sustainable future!
The Repair Café International Foundation helps these local groups by supplying a digital starter kit which tells them everything they need to know: Where to find volunteers, how to find a suitable location, how to collect tools, how to create publicity. They also receive the Repair Café logo in various formats, templates for posters and flyers, and registration as well as feedback forms. When a local group is ready, they report back to the Foundation and we put their location on the world map of Repair Cafés. Many of the 2000 Repair Cafes in 36 countries are in Europe, but a growing number are, for example, also in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even Japan.
1014: In an ideal world, what more should be done to achieve the Goal of “Responsible Consumption and Production”?
Martine Postma: In an ideal world, manufacturers should make products that are “repairable”. For example, casings should be assembled with screws instead of being melted together, individual parts should be able to be removed and replaced separately without causing damage to the product. Repair manuals should be available and easy to understand.
Apart from this, consumers should put more effort into maintenance and careful use. Many things break because the owner does not tend to the product properly – they do not perform maintenance, do not clean, do not lubricate; they use thing carelessly and handle them too roughly. A reason for this is that many new products are relatively cheap: You can get a kettle for € 12. Such a price does not give the consumer the idea of having purchased a valuable product that needs to be taken care of in the right way.
One way to solve this problem is to make new products more expensive. Governments could do this by taxing raw materials higher. Right now, natural resources are hardly taxed at all, enabling manufacturers to produce all this cheap stuff. At the same time, repair work should become cheaper by lowering the tax rates on labor. Why not make repair work VAT free? That would make a professional repair cheaper and therefore more attractive for a consumer with a broken object.
What we need to realize is that resources are scarce and that we should use them carefully and moderately. Whereas labor is not scarce at all – there are more people in the world every day, and they all need a job. We should adapt the economic system to this situation by making it attractive to use more of this labor force and less raw materials. At this moment, this is not what we do: we use resources like they are endlessly available and let people who could work as a repairer stand on the sideline. That does not make sense.