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Fixing the Future: Repair Cafés and Degrowth

Fixing The Future: Repair Cafés And Degrowth

Imagine the following situation: your coffee machine breaks down, and you return it to the store to ask whether it can be repaired. The response? 

“Yes, we can try to repair your machine here, but you must pay a repair fee and wait a few days. However, we suggest you buy a new machine since it will probably be a lot cheaper, and you can bring it home immediately.”

Sound familiar? Almost every one of us has been in this spot. According to Oosterbaan (2020), this situation is the Achilles heel of the consumer culture that exists nowadays: repairing the products you buy is often more expensive and time-consuming than purchasing a new product. Plus, many of us don’t use our gadgets properly, skip reading the manuals, and have no clue how to fix them ourselves. And guess what? Manufacturers love selling new products more than repairing old ones (Oosterbaan, 2020).

This is an enormous problem, especially when the Dutch government proclaims to have built a circular economy by 2050 (Rijksoverheid, 2022). This continuous drive to consume fits into the capitalist way of thinking, in which nature is treated as an endless source of resources and people as a way to make a profit (Fraser & Monticelli, 2021). Many scholars have argued that this results in climate change, labour exploitation and inequality (Fraser & Monticelli, 2021; Parker, et al., 2014). 

The Repair Café can offer an alternative to, among others, the Achilles heel of consumer culture mentioned above. The concept of a Repair Café was created by Martine Postma in 2009 in Amsterdam (Repair Café, 2023b). As of this moment of writing, there are more than 2581 Repair Cafés globally, 503 of which are located in the Netherlands (Repair Café, 2023a). A Repair Café is a place in a local neighbourhood where people can bring broken equipment, such as electronics, clothes and bikes, to be repaired. Apart from some materials, these reparations are free and carried out by volunteers with expertise. Not only will products be repaired, but ideally, the repairer and visitor will join forces in repairing the item, hopefully leading the visitor to avoid or fix the problem themselves if it occurs in the future (Repair Café, 2020). 

Different scholars criticise the dominant underlying capitalist economy, often taken for granted, that recognizes growth as the pillar for well-being and solution to all societal problems like poverty (Banerjee et al., 2021). In this case, well-being is primarily measured to (increasing) standards of material prosperity. In contrast, these scholars argue that constant growth is the root of our socio-ecological problems. This growth leads to significant ecological, financial, and psychological issues, as well as increased inequality and exploitation. (Paulson et al., 2020). 

They call upon a socio-economic transformation towards more socially and ecologically sustainable economies through, for example, degrowth. Degrowth refers to an ‘equitable down-scaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions at the local and global level, in the short and long term’ (Schneider et al., 2010, p. 512). Could a Repair Café be a way to work towards a degrowth economy? 

First of all, Repair Cafés aims for a reduction in production and consumption. The Repair Café tries to prevent people from buying new products and promote circularity by repairing broken items. In doing so, the Repair Café tries to contribute to a change in the consumer mindset towards less consumption. This change in consumer mindset teaches people to appreciate the value of their belongings again and to view them as usable for longer (Banerjee, et al., 2021). In addition, the Repair Café also contributes to making the means of production more accessible to individuals. By spreading knowledge and tools on how to repair things, individuals become less dependent on the industrialised system, in which few people have technological expertise. Instead, they learn to be more self-sufficient (Kallis, et al., 2018). By sharing this knowledge and skills on repairing, a Repair Café helps reduce visitors’ ecological footprint by preventing them from purchasing new products. 

Moreover, the Repair Café also actively tries to increase the well-being of people by fulfilling non-material needs. The Repair Café offers a platform where people can meet each other and build social relationships, generating a value unrelated to growth. Moreover, the activity of repairing itself can bring joy to repairers as well as visitors. Repair Cafés, thus, enrich people’s social relationships and develop a qualitative good life with fewer belongings (Banerjee et al., 2021). The latter is essential as several scholars argue that consumption beyond a certain level of wealth causes increased rates of depression and anxiety among people (Parker, et al., 2014). 

Well, I imagine you would like to visit a Repair Café now. Here is a list of upcoming Repair Café’s, so take a look and learn how to fix your coffee machine! 

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