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The rise (and rise) of the Repair Café: 7 things a really great Repair Café needs

By now, we’re all very familiar with the mantra of waste minimisation: reduce, reuse and recycle. This phrase has been a fundamental part of the environmental movement since the 1970s.

We also know that recycling should be the last option in the hierarchy—so since then the R’s have expanded to also include redesign (to design out wastes), refuse (to buy the product), repair (broken products), and recover (the energy or materials).

Repair, in particular, is a popular concept that has now grown into a ‘movement’. Why? Well, it’s become a protest against the recent trend in modern consumerism towards a ‘throwaway society’.

The profusion of cheap, mass-produced, and unrepairable products has created consumption practices that no longer value products—or the resource inputs used to create those products—once they break. This form of mass production, along with planned obsolescence, has been fuelling wasteful consumption —where otherwise perfectly good products end up in landfill (or worse, as pollution or litter) rather than continuing a useful life.

As identified in Consumer magazine last year:

Manufacturers deploy tactics to steer us towards buying new things: spare parts are scarce, expensive, or “out of stock”; there’s no repair advice; and products are tough to crack open as they’ve been glued or have odd-shaped fasteners that your screwdrivers don’t fit. All the time, they market new models as so much better than your old, faulty one. The message is that repair isn’t worth it.
They aren’t going to change without legislation and pressure from customers”.

And all of this has happened within a relatively short space of time. We need only look back fifty years or so to see a different world—one where consumer goods, clothing, white goods, toys, electrical equipment, and more… were all repaired when they broke.

But what’s worse is that not only have we lost many of the products that can be repaired, but as a society, we’re also starting to lose the all-important repair skills that are needed to bring broken products back into useful life.

Enter the Repair Café movement. The Repair Café initiative was started by Martine Postma, a Dutch journalist and environmentalist who organised the very first Repair Café in Amsterdam in 2009. Since then, Repair Café has grown to become an international not-for-profit movement that strives to preserve repair skills in society and to promote more repairable products.

What is a Repair Café?

Repair Cafés are free meeting places where people repair things together. At the Repair Café location, there’ll be tools and materials to help participants make any repairs they need—to clothes, furniture, electrical appliances, bicycles, crockery, appliances, toys… the list goes on.

Importantly, visitors to a Repair Café can also find expert volunteers on hand that have repair skills in all kinds of areas. The idea is that visitors bring their broken items from home to the Repair Café, and together with the specialists they make repairs.

But just as important is the opportunity for engagement in the local community. Each of the Repair Cafés is a local, place-based initiative where people from all walks of life can meet and build those all-important community linkages. And at last count, there were 2,441 registered Repair Cafés worldwide, with an estimated 36615 volunteers involved in the movement.

Because Repair Cafés are independently organised and run by volunteers in the community, there’s a wide range of Repair Cafés out there. According to Repair Café Aotearoa NZ in early 2022, there are now more than 37 Repair Cafés running in New Zealand, and more are popping up all the time.

The Repair Café Aotearoa NZ (RCANZ) branch of the international Repair Café community is the umbrella organisation that supports all the Repair Cafés that are scattered across NZ—with promotions, advocacy, and capacity building. In this way they can amplify the impacts of repair for local communities.

There are some key advantages for local Repair Cafés to affiliating their community operation with RCANZ:

  • RCANZ has a Memorandum of Understanding with the International Repair Café Foundation, meaning they can provide the Repair Café International Starter Kit for Repair Cafés—for the benefit of any New Zealand Repair Café that wishes to use them.

  • RCANZ is part of the Circular Economy Directory by the Sustainable Business Network—so is able to leverage the collaboration opportunities that are provided by participating in that directory.

  • RCANZ is a member of the Zero Waste Network of NZ (ZWN), which is comprised of more than 100 organisations and groups around the country all working with their local community towards Zero Waste.

All of which means that RCANZ can support and amplify the work that local community Repair Cafés do.

Not all Repair Cafés are created equal—so, what makes a good one?

We decided to explore further, and examine what makes a good Repair Café, to see what can be learned and shared.

Here’s what our research showed us:

1. The most successful Repair Cafés have taken advantage of the national and international support available to them, but according to Sarah Pritchett of WasteMINZ (who, alongside experts Hannah Blumhardt and Dr Paul Smith wrote the ‘Right to Repair’ chapter in the recently published book ‘More Zeros and Ones’), a key ingredient for success is the support of Local and Central Government.

“We need central Government to amend some of our current legislation to incentivise manufacturers to make durable products that are designed to be repaired as part of a circular economy. Repairing, rather than replacing, significantly reduces the creation of both waste and carbon emissions, so we need these measures in place now.”
- Sarah Pritchett, WasteMINZ

2. For those wanting to start a new Repair Café, it’s helpful to use the extensive, step-by-step Repair Café starter kit and manual. These provide guidance about finding local repair experts and a suitable location, collecting the right tools, creating publicity, and even finding funds.

3. A good Repair Café is driven by volunteerism—where committed (and handy!) people give up their time to help others bring life back to their broken belongings. One of the essential elements of a good Repair Café is matching every visitor up with a suitable repair person to interact, learn, and build a relationship with the processes and materials that go into making our modern-day conveniences possible. Enhancing the social and community cohesion-building element of repair cafes is fundamental to their continued expansion and popularity.

4. To make a Repair Café viable it’s often helpful to collaborate and align with like-minded charitable organisations—at the same time ensuring that all key stakeholders in the organisations involved in the collaboration have the same vision, motivations, and expectations.

5. Beyond the in-person events, technology can also support the shared knowledge and capacity of the network. Some Repair Cafés have developed online tools which enable volunteers to collate and share data on their repairs online. Volunteers share information on the problems they faced and how they fixed them, or if they didn’t manage to.

To find out more about the way that Repair Cafés operate, we spoke with James Watson from Doughnut Economics Advocates New Zealand (DEANZ), who are currently supporting four active Repair Cafés in the Auckland region, with two more opening soon. Their goal is to establish a network of monthly Repair Cafés throughout Auckland, with the long-term intention of expanding their Repair Café network across Aotearoa.

DEANZ supports these locally-run Repair Cafés by offering administrative and management frameworks, providing publicity, assisting with funding and fundraising, and enabling synergies and connectivity between the Cafés.

When we asked James the question: “What makes a great Repair Café?” he identified two key things that make a Repair Café really successful:

6. When several Repair Cafés create an interdependent network, they develop communities to support each other.

“We get all our Repair Cafés managers together and we talk about issues that are confronting their individual Repair Cafés and try to work out ways we can support them. There's also a lot of cross-fertilisation—for example, if a repairer isn't available on a particular day, then we can bring someone across from another Repair Café to fill that missing slot… the wider community of repair cafes can nurture one another. And that's really important for us.”

In this way, each of the Repair Cafés becomes more viable and sustainable—offering longevity of service to both volunteers and visitors alike.

7. It’s important to hold the Repair Café events on a regular basis—at least monthly, if possible.

“Both the guests who come into our cafes and the repairers seem to enjoy the fact that they’re monthly—they can rely on them being open the next month. And there's all sorts of synergies associated with that. So, for example, if someone brings something in to get repaired [and we don’t have the part available] we tell them what they need to get so the item can be repaired. They can go out to purchase that, and then come back the next month to do the repair.”

It’s reasonable for someone to wait a month to get the repair done while parts are sourced, but any longer than that means that the concept of repair becomes less desirable.

We also asked the question: “Why are Repair Cafés important?”, and James spoke about the fundamental principles of Doughnut Economics. Every initiative that DEANZ supports needs to take into account not only the ecological ceiling (to ensure that humanity does not collectively overshoot the planetary boundaries) but must also support our social foundations (to ensure that no one is left falling short on life’s essentials).

“And so, we're not only concerned about preventing stuff going to landfill, we're also very concerned about social relationships and community building when we try to help people [at a Repair Café]—which is part of the inner circle of the doughnut.
There's nothing like the feeling of going along to a Repair Café. If I want to feel good, if I want a lift, I go to a Repair Café that we're holding—and everyone's happy.”

By reducing resource consumption and waste to landfill, providing opportunity for community connections, and ensuring those essential items that people need can be repaired at low to no-cost, Repair Cafés strongly support both the ecological and social aspects of Doughnut Economics.

Repair Cafés in the media—Aotearoa New Zealand’s call to action

What’s been really encouraging is how often Repair Cafés have been hitting the news here in Aotearoa New Zealand.

It’s about bringing back some of the skills that are getting lost. Hopefully, people leave knowing how to change a lawn-mower spark plug or sharpen a knife.”
It’s a culture we’re trying to get established. Changing that consumer attitude that everything lasts only so long, and then you buy new.”
"It's a community hub, a way of bringing people together. While someone's fixing your iron, you're also chatting to someone you haven't met before. There's this connection happening between people."

At Project:Moonshot, we think that Repair Cafés form an important part of our transition to a circular economy, and we encourage everyone to get involved in a community repair event (whether it’s a Repair Café or other event) in your local area.

But more than that, we believe in the importance of products that are repairable. In today’s market of planned obsolescence and profusion of cheap, unrepairable, mass-produced goods, it can be harder and harder for the consumer to find—and afford—products that have repairability factored into their design and production.

Environment Minister David Parker has signalled he wants the upcoming Waste Minimisation Act review to include a right to repair, meaning businesses would need to ensure their products can easily be fixed, at a reasonable cost. From our perspective, that can’t happen soon enough.

So, at Project:Moonshot, we’re not only celebrating the community events that support repair, but we also support those businesses and organisations that are building longevity, reusability and repairability into their products.

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