Not too long ago, to sew, fix, solder or patch something that was broken or worn was the normal thing to do for most people. It was a given that one would use one’s own skills or call a repair service to extend the lifespan of appliances and other household items as far as possible. Nowadays, if a smartphone, a shoe or a washing machine breaks, a delivery van shows up with a replacement in less time than the garbage truck needs to haul away the old one. The extraction of raw materials and the production of new consumer goods have become ever cheaper – because the environmental and social costs are not priced in. This leads to us buying and owning more, while losing touch with many of the things that surround us. Manual skills and repair knowledge are less and less likely to be passed on from one generation to the next.
As a result, we have now reached a point where repairing something is no longer the default option but something that is hard to achieve – because it is expensive, time-consuming or downright impossible. However, in order to deal more sustainably with our resources and the raw materials that we have already wrung from the earth, we need to use, reuse and recycle them – i.e. keep them in our economic cycle – for as long as possible. This cannot be achieved by recycling alone, because material recycling is itself very energy-intensive, and too many materials cannot yet be adequately processed.
What is needed, then, is a general change in the way we deal with our possessions and a revival of the repair culture. For repairs to become the default choice again, they need to be easier and cheaper. This can only be achieved if as many people as possible are enabled to make repairs. Firstly, by creating a fair repair market that does not discriminate against independent repair service providers and initiatives and in which manufacturers cannot prevent repairs. Software locks that prevent the exchange of parts or the use of used spare parts must become a thing of the past, as do massively overpriced spare parts and the very unavailability of spare parts. Instead, there will a thriving repair sector, which will also increase local value creation first and foremost.
Secondly, we should empower more people to familiarize themselves with the inner workings of devices, to regain knowledge about the objects that surround them and to acquire manual skills and technical expertise. Young people in particular, who are given the opportunity to practice repairs at school, in their family and in extracurricular activities, could benefit from it and learn to value this kind of work. This is all the more important since the repair sector is facing a major recruitment problem and valuable knowledge that is necessary for the future viability of our society is lost every day.
Katrin Meyer has been coordinating the activities of Runder Tisch Reparatur e.V. (RTR), an association dedicated to establishing a new repair culture and a right to repair in Germany, since 2019. RTR brings together trades businesses, environmental and consumer protection organizations, volunteer repair initiatives and other actors from civil society, business and science who are committed to promoting repairs and a new repair culture.