Throwing away broken stuff has never been an easier choice. For some items, prices have never been lower; for others, instant obsolescence means you always have an excuse to upgrade, as if you needed an excuse. Can the possibility of repair begin to change consumer habits?
New York City’s Pop Up Repair Shop was a one-month experiment this June “aimed at breaking the cycle of use-and-discard goods.” It was the first step of a larger exploration of the issue, led by Sandra Goldmark, a set and costume designer and theater professor at Barnard College. Sandra and her husband Michael Banta, a theater production manager at Barnard, launched the shop using funds from an IndieGoGo campaign, which raised over $9,000.
Besides suffering from the frustration of a broken toaster oven and a broken printer about a year and a half ago, theater provided some inspiration for the shop.
“For every show, we make and throw away stuff to make a fantasy world, again and again, and it is just a constant reminder that there’s a whole world of real stuff going through the same cycle,” Sandra says.
Her father, by the way, is lifelong environmentalist Peter Goldmark, former president of the Rockefeller Foundation and former executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Theater also provided an ideal skill set for repair. ”Everything we’ve been able to do here, we learned how to do because of theater,” Michael adds. Many of the “repair wizards” who staffed the shop also came from the theater world.
Customer volume far exceeded Sandra and Michael’s expectations. Over 190 customers brought in a total of over 360 items to repair. One customer brought in 14 items. The first 25 customers were offered pay-as-you-will prices, to get a sense of what people were willing to pay before settling on some set prices for common goods.
Getting a sense of what people would pay was part of the experiment. Chairs, lamps, fans, other small electronics including iPhones and also stuffed toys were popular items. Most customers came from the Inwood neighborhood of New York where the shop was located, in a tiny rented-out former pharmacy–on Broadway.
As part of the experience, customers answered a set of questions, including, “Are you bringing this in to get fixed because it has sentimental value, avoiding the higher cost of a replacement, or to help the environment?” as well as, “On a scale of one to 10, one being not at all and 10 being very strong, how much of an environmentalist would you consider yourself to be?” Barnard College provided a research grant to support data collection, analysis, and a “theatrical response” to be crafted based on the shop experience.
As it turned out, Sandra says, “a lot of people coming into the shop rated themselves high as an environmentalist but they rarely said that they’re coming in for that. They just want their things fixed. I think, in a weird way, they’re selling themselves short.”
At the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the largest environmental action groups in the U.S., known for working with the Recording Academy to reduce the environmental footprint of the Grammy Awards, senior resource specialist Darby Hoover weighed in on incentives against repair and on the possibility of changing consumer habits.
“One particular thing that happened in just the past 20 years or so was that the pace at which we generate new technology has accelerated so much that by the time something breaks, it’s already outdated,” Darby says. “There’s no incentive to repair. There’s always something newer and better.”
The situation is not entirely hopeless. ”We’ve also created much better ways of connecting so there are more options to mix and match something that’s broken with someone that knows how to repair it or find a video of someone showing how to repair it,” Darby says. “I think what we really need to do is match the information with the mentality. We need to remind ourselves that there is value in repair and there is value in trying to keep something out of the landfill.”
Darby referenced a few for-profit firms in the Bay Area, where she is located, that are designed to keep stuff out of the landfill, including Urban Ore in Berkeley that was founded in 1980, and Recology, an employee-owned firm in San Francisco that runs 20 programs designed to increase recycling and reuse.
Between ordering parts, rent and utilities, and compensation for repair wizards, the Pop-Up Repair shop still turned out to be a losing venture, financially. ”We don’t think right now there’s any way to charge enough for this model to really achieve financial independence,” Sandra says.
She remains optimistic. “I think the attitudes around stuff in our country may start to follow along similar lines as the food movement,” Sandra says. “The first farmer’s market in New York opened in the mid 1970s, so this food movement has been building for a long time and is still frankly small compared to the mainstream. When it comes to stuff, at least in the Inwood community, I feel like people are ready for a similar change in habits, if we just provide them a way.”
I remember many years ago, listening to Paul Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward being interviewed. They were asked how they were able to stay married and keep their love alive in the "Hollywood" environment. Paul went on to say that we live in a throw away world, a toaster, washing machine, basically anything that breaks is tossed and a new one replaces it. He then went onto say that when he and Joanne were deciding to marry,money also decided that if their marriage started to break, they would repair it, and that divorce was not an option. This made a strong impression on me, and I have retold this story many times. My husband and I just celebrated our 44th anniversary and even though we have had some rough patches, we fixed what was broken. We also try to fix "stuff" when it is broken, and wish we had a place like Pop-Up Repair close to where we live.
Wonderful old idea, renewed. I remember the village repair shops, the familial attitude of save, repair, repurpose which is nonexistent now. Too bad the flip flopped. Honorable try, though. Awareness of our waste is becoming more "popular," so repairing may too. We donate our castoffs to charities like Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul to recycle and help others rather than the backyard trashcan.
Nature is a perfect example why we should recycle, repair, and reuse. In the sanvanna, no carcass is left unclean to the bone. A forest having humus make from leaves from the cold weather and the bacteria and insects speed the process.Then nutrients go back into the soil for the tree in the forest. When a person gets a cut, the person's body goes into action into repair itself with a scab. The point is that nature do it and why can we. With right planing, this ideology or ideas can be p
kudos to you for pop up repair. My Uncle Mike is an absolute wizard at repairing just about anything. His garage is a treasure trove of bits and pieces of things most folks would toss out with garbage, he uses odds & ends to repair everything from his 25 year old mini van to creating a a zip line from an old elevator cable. thank you for pointing out possibilities! HUG
Good try pop up repairers I empathize with intent and commiserate with the financial doldrums . However if a full cost analysis was done on the fast tech (toys, tools, forced necessities and dependencies) fast food (Faux food) , fast fashion (waste pushers) that race to the bottom wage distortion, depletionary pattern that is creating ever more scarcity and fear in trying to out run it! However if we accept responsibility instead of justifying the evil with good crap (you know that one right?) an entirely new human narrative emerges. The new story understands that our health costs hinge to enviro contamination, which hinges to our patent and privatization methodology (GMOs, twisted incentives) the whole idea of hierarchy, more, as -all of this was made up to satisfy an ideology that no longer rings true. Once past the hurdle of what we are taught to believe, we find an open field of more possibility, more connections, more interactive relationships and this is where we will start to really heal. Evolution? -could be,as those leaps are not accounted for, and as they parallel the QP and creative leaping I would say why not experiment at that level of paradigm change? I am working on one new story, i hope there are others, for this round we have to learn the relationship skills that will help us max all of our exciting, unique potentials and we can only do this-together (has to do with reflection, feedback, 2 heads better, this and more) Imagine the possibilities![Hide Full Comment]
On Oct 20, 2014 Glenis wrote:
Sorry auto correct, not "money" should be "they" of course.
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