Ulrike Ehgartner and Steffen Hirth
What do the politics of Nebraskan farmers, independent phone shops, grassroots sustainability activists, the US military, consumer rights advocates and US presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren have in common? This improbable coalition is united by increasingly vocal calls for the “Right to Repair”. The “Right to Repair” pushes back against the increasing monopoly on repair exercised by manufacturers of products, from John Deere’s $250,000 tractors, to Apple IPhones and European white goods—and with it the planned obsolescence of products (Weiser 2016). With software increasingly integral to products from tractors and cars to fridges and washing machines, US consumer advocates have argued that such developments have compromised consumers’ ability to exercise their full ownership rights, by restricting their access, and right, to repair their own property. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, a US Marine Corps logistics officer, Captain Elle Ekman, described how the restrictions imposed by manufacturers even limits the ability of the US military to maintain its own equipment in the field.
Amateur repair today sometimes infringes guarantee terms, regulations or even intellectual property laws. And while motor maintenance may have been a quintessential male practice of the twentieth century, today’s car owner is literally presented with a ‘black box’ requiring increasing expensive and sophisticated computer technology to maintain. In 2017 Nebraska attempted to introduce a Fair Repair Act. But the big technology companies, including Apple, recognised the threat this posed and succeeded in kicking the Nebraska bill into the long grass. Since then the corporate fightback against the Right to Repair has stalled or defeated Right to Repair bills in 20 US states on grounds of safety, security and intellectual property risks. US senator Elizabeth Warren has recognised the electoral opportunity here in her bid for the 2020 presidential race.
Last year saw the ‘Right to Repair’ coalesce in Europe into a fully-fledged political movement that took on consumer goods producers in the policy arena over the updating of regulations of the EU EcoDesign Directive (see Svensson et al. 2018). While the corporations lobbied for legislation that would frame “eco-design” in terms of energy efficiency and producer controlled recyclability, a “repair movement” tooled up for citizens’ (and smaller businesses’) ‘Right to Repair’.
The repair movement draws its energy from increasingly widespread grassroots initiatives, and some well organised ‘hub’ organisations, such as the Repair Café Foundation and the UK’s Restart Project. Repair Cafés are often temporary spaces where volunteers open the doors to the public to bring everyday items for repair. The first Repair Café opened in Amsterdam in 2009—ten years later there are over 1,500 worldwide.
The substance of the Right to Repair is guaranteed access to spare parts and repair information for all, and ‘design for disassembly’ with readily available tools. European campaigners won a partial victory in the Ecodesign Directive. Repair campaigners won the precedent for producers having to provide access to key spare parts for professional repairers for up to 10 years after selling the last unit of a model and “design for disassembly”. This creates a major precedent, with the repairability of products legally built into legal design standards. However, a major loss to the movement was the restricting of access of spare parts and repair information to professional repairers, with regulations granting producers the final say on who qualifies as “professional”. This directly cuts across the DIY ethos of the Repair Café movement.
In dominant economic practices (Gibson-Graham 2006) companies’ financial interests undermine the longevity and durability of electronic products from washing machines and mobile phones to furniture and clothes. Current product design, warranty terms and regulations make consumers dependent on corporations to replace or fix their goods and encourage a “throwaway culture”. The Right to Repair movement raises awareness and combats these practices that drive social-ecological crises through resource extraction, energy consumption in production and distribution, and emission of pollutants. Electronic waste, for example, is claimed to be ‘the fastest growing waste stream in the world’ of which ‘only 15-20% is recycled’. The ‘Right to Repair’ movement does not only demand that more devices should be repaired; rather, it is about ending the existence of any disposable products. In other words, it is directed against the capitalist tendency to create planned and unplanned obsolescences that fire the furnaces of resource throughput and profits.
In a pilot project with colleagues Helen Holmes, Wouter Spekkink and Dan Welch at the Sustainable Consumption Institute we have conducted interviews and participant observation with initiatives that maintain or revive practices such as mending clothes or repairing everyday consumer goods. There is a broad variation in terms of the initiatives’ motivations, which range from the environmental to the social and to the entrepreneurial. But all, in some way or another, aim to extend the lifetime of consumer objects such as clothes, electronic devices and appliances, furniture, bikes, crockery, or toys. The ‘Right to Repair’ principles unite individuals engaged in these initiatives and are at the core of the practices observed at various ‘repair’ or ‘community’ events which happen in cities and small towns around the UK.
Based on our study, we distinguish three connected activities for which initiators, volunteers, and visitors come together. Firstly, the ability to diagnose a problem enforces engagement with the material qualities of objects and, thereby, opens up an informed choice between repair and replacement. Secondly, in the event of existing capacities to repair within the initiatives, a broad range of practices such as mending, welding, soldering, stitching, sewing, replenishing, and restoring are performed in conjuncture with the ability to improvise and invent. Thirdly, initiatives organise and encourage activities to repurpose goods, for example, using unwanted materials—otherwise “waste”—to create something new, such as using old t-shirts to make new banners for football fans, upcycling furniture, swapping clothes or toys, or even reusing plastic as a raw material.
Political Engagement and Self-Cultivation
Looking at the complexities of organizational structures and social relationships present in Repair Cafés and similar initiatives, our study has further found that their activities reach beyond the contestation of planned obsolescence and the generation of waste. The ways in which the initiators, volunteers, and visitors to these initiatives engage with artefacts, tools—and each other—integrates physical and mental activities, and brings social and material elements together. Moreover, it breaks with the dualism of provisioning and receiving: everybody’s engagement is active and ‘hands on’, people chat and share coffee and cake as they work with materials, and, most significantly, everyone involved is a learner as well as a potential teacher. Those who come along to share and exercise their skills are keen to learn from others. In the context of this self-conception as learning communities, it is not uncommon for first-time visitors to be recruited to help out. In a repair session that we observed for example, an elderly woman, who came to have her kettle repaired, ended up stitching up a moth hole in another visitor’s dress.
The practices we encountered at these events constantly break the boundaries of conventional perceptions of things’ worth. As a community, people pay attention to, preserve and maintain what is commonly considered worthless, based on considerations of individual constraints of time and economic feasibility. They do so by being inherently more oriented towards processes, rather than outcomes, and by not questioning the economic value of an item. Values of creativity and usability are integral to these community events. While in a commercial setting the costs of labour involved often outweigh the economic value of repair over pruchase, repair initiatives offer a non-commodified space in which use value can win out. Inherently based on understandings of guidance and mentorship, during these gatherings everyone takes charge and actively engages with objects. In this way, everyone’s agency and responsibility are built and reinforced, challenging the “service-based” mindset ingrained in our society. In this way, activities and events organised by these initiatives are sources of empowerment: not only are the “hard skills” of repair and maintenance taught, but people are also invited to collaborate and build confidence in their own abilities. Through their practices of ‘self-cultivation’, these initiatives’ activities are inherently political, way beyond their environmental aspects (Gibson-Graham 2006; Holmes 2018).
Beyond Techno-Innovation: Repairing Society
Regardless of the individual motivations of people involved in these initiatives, the everyday practices performed on these sites challenge dominant social structures and ways of thinking. As such, these practices of matter and meaning are political and hold the potential for social change. They offer a prefigurative politics of practice (Yates 2015), rather than just passive protest.
The struggle over the EcoDesign Directive is a struggle over competing visions of sustainability. Sustainability is often framed in terms of innovation and change—a framing that sits comfortably with the imperatives of capital accumulation (Russell and Vinsel 2018). After innovation, turn to maintenance. Technology and Culture 59(1):1-25. What the repair movement foregrounds is that at least as important as technological innovation is the preservation of endangered, sustainable practices: everyday activities, such as mending clothes, that are in danger of being replaced by more resource- and energy intensive alternatives. Often this amounts to the displacement of know-how and embodied practices by energy-using technologies (Wilhite 2016). This years’ International Repair Day has a theme of “repair for the climate and for the future”—highlighting this issue of how repair can save resources, energy and benefit the environment. Beyond a focus on repairing, our concept of ‘endangered practices’ foregrounds how the current economic system undermines existing sustainable practices. Saving endangered practices, in view of the threat of a world beyond repair, can help to repair the ways in which we engage with our social and-natural environments.
Gibson-Graham JK (2006) A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Holmes, H. (2018) ‘New spaces, ordinary practices: circulating and sharing within diverse economies of provisioning, Geoforum, 88, 138-147.
Russell, A. and L. Vinsel. 2018. ‘After innovation, turn to maintenance’. Technology and Culture 59(1):1-25.
Svensson S, Richter JL, Maitre-Ekern E, et al. (2018) The Emerging ‘Right to Repair’ legislation in the EU and the U.S. In: Going Green CARE INNOVATION 2018.
Wieser, H. (2017) ‘Ever-faster, ever-shorter? Replacement cycles of durable goods in historical perspective’ In C. A. Bakker & R. Mugge (Eds.), Volume 9: PLATE: Product Lifetimes and The Environment (pp. 426-431), Delft University of Technology, IOS Press.
Wilhite, H. (2016) The Political Economy of Low Carbon Transformation: Breaking the Habits of Capitalism. London: Routledge
Yates, L. (2015) “Rethinking Prefiguration: Alternatives, Micropolitics and Goals in Social Movements” Social Movement Studies Vol14(1)
Ulrike Ehgartner is a Research Associate in Sociology and The Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. She has recently published in Sustainable Consumption & Production and in Global Discourse. Steffen Hirth is a Research Associate in Sociology and the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester, where he was recently awarded his PhD, which examined transitions towards sustainable food practices. The Endangered Practices research team are Ulrike Ehgartner, Steffen Hirth, Helen Holmes, Wouter Spekkink and Dan Welch. The project is funded by The Sustainable Consumption Institute, The University of Manchester.
Image Credit: Electronic Frontier Foundation, CC licence.