The roll-up garage door of the auto repair shop was wide open. A cold breeze filled the space as we set up tables for the first ever Repair Fair. Sustainable Business Alliance (SBA) volunteers moved with an excited energy, like the opening night of a new play. Out of nowhere, two young women appeared, inquiring about the Sunday afternoon event on an otherwise quiet uptown street in Oakland, CA.
Though we had just started setting up and vendors had yet to arrive, we showed them the Repair Fair Directory. We explained how the event was bringing together our community’s repair resources – primarily small businesses – and that within a couple of hours over a dozen would be assembled in one place, offering free demonstrations and answering questions. Attendees would learn where to go the next time something that they love breaks.
The women scanned the single-spaced, double-sided sheet, and nearly on cue said, “Wow, I can’t believe how many things you can get repaired!” I was thrilled by their enthusiasm and their promise to return once the doors were officially open.
In that moment, I realized my experiment was going to work. I had set out to answer the following questions: Given the current love of localism and high environmental aptitude, would people be more likely to repair things if it was slightly repackaged? Could local repair shops finally be recognized as the sustainability heroes they really are? Happily, the answers were yes and yes.
Localism is growing in popularity and embodies the ideals of local sourcing and manufacture. There is an increasing preference for small brands with authentic stories that produce quality goods and services, who know their supply chain partners intimately and have purposely-compact footprints. These locally-focused, values-oriented businesses are raising the expectations of consumers and inspiring people not only to remodel our current economy, but to actually rebuild it from the ground up. The “buy fewer, buy better” rallying cry of small producers offers a compelling alternative to our entrenched habits of endless consumption and planned obsolescence. Patagonia’s Buy Less Campaign echoes and amplifies the message.
Local repair shops share many attributes with the localist community, but, to date, have chosen not to market themselves as such.
Back to the Repair Fair: When I began inviting small, local repair shop owners to participate in the SBA’s first Repair Fair, their immediate response was one of uncertainty and skepticism. While artisans are celebrated daily at maker faires, craft brew competitions and farmers markets, local repair shops are rarely celebrated at all. Their services are seen as purely pragmatic. They are remnants of an era when quality and craftsmanship were not the exception, but the rule; their services did not need to be labeled as locally-made or hand-crafted; of course they were. For that is how repair is done: by hand. Repairers bring things back to life with their well-worn tools, their skill and their pride in their work. While the social and environmental benefits of the repair economy are obvious when considered, the public does not always take time to consider them.
Though I was excited by the young women’s surprise breakthrough when looking at the Repair Fair Directory before the event started, it wasn’t until after the event that I pondered it in detail. Why would 20-somethings who grew up amid deafening sustainability messaging be shocked about the versatility of repair? Though their numbers are decreasing, repair shops have been a neighborhood fixture of towns and cities for generations — indeed, centuries. It is a livelihood built on the art and skill of fixing, mending, and repairing: sustaining, if you will. At first I assumed the issue was one of pure semantics – if repair shops were labeled as maker, indie, green, or sustainable, would these women be so surprised? Or, is this more than a marketing issue?
There is a lot of attention paid to corporations’ sustainability efforts and green products; however, what about the counter efforts of planned obsolescence? Today, the majority of goods we purchase are neither expected nor intended to last. We as consumers consistently succumb to a disposable reality and reinforce it with our purchasing decisions. Goods are priced too low for repair to make sense. Additionally, parts are intentionally not made available, repair is not considered in the design, and every market incentive directs us away from repair and toward a new purchase. As consumers, our expectations have been lowered as our market system appears too big, complex, and opaque to be held accountable. What alternatives do we have? The temptation of artificially low prices by global corporations has created this ingrained cycle.
I spent months going door to door, repeatedly visiting the repair shops in my community. I learned that they are deeply bruised by our disposable economy and culture – but they are not beaten. The week before the Fair, repair shops and organizations were emailing me to see if they could still secure a spot. I was stunned.
The event was scheduled for a Sunday, the one day most repair shops are closed. We set up, and held our breath. Amazingly, people started to arrive. Lots of people. They brought energy and excitement. A demonstration schedule gave each shop a dedicated slot for a 10 min demo and 5 min Q&A. A repair community formed. Shop owners that work on the same street were meeting each other for the first time. They swapped stories and promised to refer each other business. Fixit Clinic volunteers were in the back ready to disassemble and tinker. We had the Story of Stuff on a continuous loop, to help set the background for why the event matters. 120 people, on a very busy weekend in the Bay Area, chose to meet their local repair experts, and to learn where to go and what to do when a favorite item breaks. Some attendees hugged me, others shook my hand, and most asked simply, “When is the next one?”
The experiment was a success. The event showcased the truth of the matter: repair shops are more than just a viable option for fixing the things we love. They are local sustainability heroes that increase both the lifespans of our “stuff,” and the resiliency of our neighborhoods. They allow natural resources used in the production of our goods to go further and last longer. They are a connection to our past, harboring hard-to-find skills that are in danger of not being passed on to the next generation. Furthermore, they reduce waste and empower us to help combat a disposable reality.
Bringing together a range of neighborhood repair shops in a single event showed both the shopkeepers and their customers the links that unite them. Repackaging repair as an event unto itself made it possible to draw attention to the direct environmental, economic, and social benefits of repair. Don’t let the hype about buying ‘green’ lead you to overlook your local repair shops. Support these silent sustainability heroes. Typically, the ‘greenest’ purchase you can make is repairing the thing you already own.
 See Business Alliance for Local Living Economies for more information: https://bealocalist.org/Why_we_work