Circular economy

Even in a throwaway economy, repair isn’t dead

The average German household contains about 10,000 objects, say Stefan Krebs and Heike Weber (citing a study by Frank Trentmann). Photo: Shutterstock

The average German household contains about 10,000 objects, say Stefan Krebs and Heike Weber (citing a study by Frank Trentmann). Photo: Shutterstock

It’s common to speak of the “lifespan” of a phone, laptop or car, but it isn’t entirely accurate to do so: objects live on, whether in dusty drawers or second-hand shops or garbage dumps. What is the history of repair and how is it shaping Luxembourg’s future?

Our world is saturated with the new, a concept that applies as much to material objects (a new phone) as to novel aspects of those objects (the new features on the new phone). The companies making these objects continually redesign and remarket new versions of them, while startups seek to introduce original products, technology and applications of technology to the scene.

Unsurprisingly, given the predominance of these practices, academia is also drawn to the new: historians of technology have long focused on the moment when a new piece of technology hits society. That’s according to Dr Stefan Krebs, a researcher at the University of Luxembourg who specialises in the history of maintenance and repair.

“Historians of technology have had a fascination with innovation, new technologies, how things are invented, how they are developed, how they are diffused in a society,” he explains. “But we have very few studies on what actually happens to technologies once they are on the market.”

As part of a three-year project at the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH), Krebs and two PhD students have been investigating the mainstream assumption that the rise of throwaway culture in the latter 20th century has led to a decline in repair practices.

“Many historians assume that, with the advent of consumer society--with mass production and the declining costs for new products--people tended to repair their consumer objects less,” says Krebs, “and that repair businesses and practices disappeared over time.”

But they didn’t

“There is not a linear correlation between mass consumption and the decline of repair,” the historian continues, citing one of his preliminary findings. Not, at least, in Luxembourg during the 1970s and ’80s, the timeframe of his research.

Stranger still, the findings suggest that the number of employees in the repair sector may even have risen during that period.

Stefan Krebs got interested in maintenance and repair studies after coming across old cartoons of car mechanics listening to their cars.  Photo: Stefan Krebs

Stefan Krebs got interested in maintenance and repair studies after coming across old cartoons of car mechanics listening to their cars.  Photo: Stefan Krebs

This isn’t to say that the sector didn’t change. In line with the retail trends of the time, small repair shops were run out of business by large vendors offering the same services at lower costs. Repair may have formed just a part of these vendors’ offerings, such as an auto dealer that also had a garage onsite. This phenomenon is one reason why statistics of the era can be misleading, Krebs explains. (If the aforementioned auto dealer sold more cars than it repaired, it was likely classified only as a seller.)

But the objects deemed repairable also underwent a shift: shoes, Krebs points out, became something to replace rather than to fix, as factory production lowered their prices and rubber soles became popular. Thus, cobblers faded from relevance and shoemaking apprenticeships disappeared completely. “You can also find discourses in the newspapers and magazines around these shifts,” he adds. “There are articles lamenting the loss of certain crafts or trades, including that of shoemaker.”

As of today, Statec has dropped “shoemaker” as a category of repair business altogether. And yet, despite this damning full-stop on Krebs’s smoothly tracked decline of the trade, the broader repair sector wasn’t stamped out by mass production. It only changed.

And it keeps changing

Getting your shoes fixed went out of style decades ago, but so did certain narratives around upkeep and maintenance. In an essay published in The Persistence of Technology: Histories of Repair, Reuse and Disposal, Krebs and co-author Heike Weber report that users in the 1970s and ’80s “were reminded that they should regularly open up hairdryers, shavers and handheld mixers and perform certain maintenance tasks in order to keep them in working order for as long as possible.”

This, certainly, is no longer the case. So what kinds of things do people get repaired nowadays?  

It’s a question that says a lot about society. Krebs and Weber assert that, today, “it is largely the emotional and symbolic meaning of a thing which determines whether or not it is repaired.” Such meaning can also be strong enough to justify, in the user’s eyes, paying more for repairs than what a replacement would cost. The authors cite a study of repair workshops in southwest England where this happened frequently: “examples included comfortable slippers which had been broken in to the owner’s liking, or a pan which the owner used to cook porridge in a known amount of time.”

The same observations are being made in Luxembourg, too. Marcel Barros is a self-proclaimed “aficionado of the repair movement” and an integral working part of Repair Café Lëtzebuerg, a nonprofit that organises sessions where the public can bring in items for volunteer experts to fix. “It’s not just about the value of a device,” Barros says. “People get connected to their devices, like you do with a pet. Maybe because you use it every day, or because it’s from your grandma’s times… but there’s a story.”

The movement

Repair Café Lëtzebuerg is part of the wider repair café movement, which began in the Netherlands some fifteen years ago. The idea is that technicians, experts and handypeople of all kinds invite the public to bring in their broken stuff; without a charge, they’ll fix it--or try to. (Cake and coffee determine the “café” half of the formula.)

At RCL events, Barros reports, electronics make up around 80% of what people bring in, but there are also kitchen devices, clothes, furniture, whatever. “The size is the limit,” he says. “It shouldn’t be too big to fit under one arm.”

What qualifies repair cafés as a movement, however, is their ethos. Far from an idle exchange of repair services for no money, they represent a counterattack on throwaway culture.

“People are motivated [among other reasons] to fix things because it’s a kind of revolt against this system of the production industry where goods are not meant to last long,” Barros explains. He adds: “People don’t like to get manipulated.”

Barros situates repair cafés directly in the context of the Climate Pact 2.0, passed by the Luxembourg government in June this year, which emphasises the circular economy. RCL is already an initiative (in part) of the Centre for Ecological Learning Luxembourg (CELL) and as such is supported by the ministry of the environment, climate and sustainable development. Barros thus hopes that more funding will soon flow towards repair cafés. Part of his mission, in that context, is to better institutionalise the events.

“There is more and more demand, but we can’t do all the repair cafés ourselves,” he says. “So we’ve been approaching town halls to help them organise their own repair cafés. There will soon be one in Schuttrange, and one in Strassen… and many more are interested.”

Looking even beyond that horizon, Barros describes a Swedish repair model he would like to bring to Luxembourg. It involves rethinking recycling centres as “resource centres”: attached to the place where people bring junk or used materials would be a permanent shop--“like IKEA”--where that same junk could be fixed, refurbished and resold.

“This is really the logic of a circular economy,” he concludes.

Since 2013, Repair Café Lëtzebuerg has held 50 events, over which about 500 broken objects have been brought in. Of these 500, some 300 were fixed and a further 80 partially fixed.  Photo: Repair Café Lëtzebuerg

Since 2013, Repair Café Lëtzebuerg has held 50 events, over which about 500 broken objects have been brought in. Of these 500, some 300 were fixed and a further 80 partially fixed.  Photo: Repair Café Lëtzebuerg

Bandage on a broken system?

“It’s very good,” says Krebs of repair cafés, “that they are growing, and that more and more cities organise these events.”

At the same time, however, the historian doesn’t see repair as a way past the world’s problems. “In many cases, repair is quite a sustainable practice,” he says, “but when it comes to the larger ideological claims [of the movement], I’m a bit more sceptical. Making people aware that our style of consumption is not very sustainable… that you should use things a little bit longer… that you can repair your smartphone instead of buying the next one immediately… there’s nothing wrong with that. But at the same time, this is not at all sustainable technology. If you know how the raw materials [for some electronics] are produced in Africa, etc., you can see that we’re trying to fix a non-sustainable technology.”

“If you decide to use a smartphone,” he argues, “it’s better to use it longer and to repair it if necessary--but the most sustainable decision would be not to use it at all.”

While continually stressing his support for the repair café movement, Krebs even goes so far as to say that, by repairing something fundamentally non-sustainable, people may be greenwashing their own consumer habits.

Companies versus the individual

At the same time, companies have a larger hand in dictating practices than any individual does. Krebs points out that companies are capitalising on the repair movement by offering spare parts instead of properly reducing their carbon footprints. To that end, many or most of them release a new product every year, unwilling (or financially unable) to depart from the annual rhythm of the new.

“Probably the best thing that Apple could do,” says Krebs, “is not to produce a new model at all in the next five years, instead of offering a little repair service but still trying to convince customers to buy the latest model. This is greenwashing: they can say, ‘it’s the consumer’s choice if they repair it or not!’”

“But it’s not really the individual decision of the user,” he goes on. “There’s always an ecology in which everything happens.”

This, in summation, would be a problem with the “right to repair” campaign, which seeks to require companies to provide the spare parts needed to fix their products. On this front, Repair Café Lëtzebuerg is active, with the ambition of effecting change at the highest levels: Barros reports that RCL keeps records of which brands and models its volunteers fix and what was broken, with the intention of eventually getting the European Union to pressure manufacturers to get rid of design flaws.

Interestingly, the buds of corporate change might already be visible in a company like Our Choice, a Luxembourg startup that claims to offer “the world’s first circular sneakers” and whose founder, Filip Westerlund, understands how history adds worth to an object. “There’s a perception in our culture that we think we need to throw things away,” Westerlund explains. “We live in this linear structure. So a way of challenging that is to spend more time with your garment, to tie a story to it.” The sneakers are designed to be long-lasting and mendable; you can even send them back to the company for repairs. Perhaps cobblers won’t stay extinct, after all.

The thingness of a thing

It seems that Krebs and Barros are merely two faces of the same coin. The historian has a holistic take on the problem and frames it as a need for systemic revolution on fundamental levels, while the repair café aficionado is in the trenches of an important social revolution towards restructuring our everyday practices of reuse and discarding.

Both sides, however, obviously take issue with the throwaway culture being perpetuated by manufacturers who are addicted to the new.

Both of them, furthermore, inspire us to pivot our most basic understanding of the objects that fill our homes and lives. “Anthropomorphising a thing by referring to its ‘lifetime’,” say Krebs and Weber in their essay, “[…] ultimately tells us nothing about the way in which we interact with things, in other words how we use, maintain and repair them.”

What’s the alternative?

“A more useful metaphor might be the idea of a cascade of use, which incorporates reuse and repurposing by a thing’s new owners as well as any associated repairs and changes to the form and significance of the thing, right through to its disassembly and dismantling for spare parts--a common practice in economies of the poor--and its final disposal or even placement in a museum as a thing worthy of preservation, at which point repair becomes restoration.”

Find out more about Repair Café Lëtzebuerg, the C2DH’s REPAIR project and Krebs’s and Weber’s book.