In our privileged world we have stuff. Lots of stuff. And all that stuff we buy has traditionally been designed to break. It truly was a light bulb moment when in the 1920s, representatives from top manufacturers worldwide, colluded to artificially reduce a bulb’s lifetime to 1,000 hours. And so planned obsolescence was born. And it’s not just products, fast fashion was created with the same motives — to get consumers to buy more, more frequently.
But if we buy something, we own it. It’s ours to do what we want with it. Use it, modify it, repair it, however we want. Right? Wrong. In so many cases while you own the physical hardware, you are merely a user of the technology. Manufacturers use glue, not screws, to stop you getting into a product and to protect their IP — under the pretext of defending you from hackers. You think you own it — you don’t.
All of this contributes to the accumulation of stuff, some of it working, some not, some ours, some not really. But things have been changing, spurred on by growing demand from consumers, community groups and enlightened brands. And now underwritten by the ‘right to repair’ law which comes into practice later this year.
For many years it’s been a grassroots movement campaigning for a new business model and for a repair economy which works from the ground up. Remade a network of repair social enterprises has been around since 2008, when the first Remakery was started in a block of disused garages in Brixton, UK. The Manchester Declaration demanding the right to repair was created in 2018. Incidentally it’s a great source of information on where to find your local repair shop, or Repair Cafe of which there are now over 1,500 worldwide. These are meeting places for the like-minded, providing the tools and materials to, with expert volunteers on hand, help you repair everything from toys to televisions.
Brands are now developing products to last, which includes thinking about how they can be repaired. Fashion brands are encouraging us to repair and keep wearing their clothing. Patagonia, a brand which leads the way in environmental activism has teamed up with ifixit providing step-by-step guidance on how to extend the life of your high-performance gear. This complements their Worn Wear initiative which encourages people to reduce consumption by buying second hand clothing. This is something that would be completely unimaginable a few years ago — a brand actually encouraging you not to buy new. Tech brands are also on board and it’s not just start-ups like our (much-loved) brand Previously. In March, Apple announced it was extending its Independent Repair Provider programme to over 200 countries. OK so YOU still can’t do it, but at least they are opening up repair of their products. Even Amazon (the brand we all love to hate — killing the high street, invading our privacy, etc…) has built their 4th Generation Echo Dot to be “generally” repairable according to a review by the The Guardian. And if you want to know how a product ranks on ‘repairability’ ifixit will tell you — in the world of phones it’s the Shift 6M, a German brand championing modular design.
Outside the world of tech we see another side to repair — a love for the object itself. It’s why Repair Shop — first aired in 2017 — is coming back in a prime time slot this year. It’s not just the history of the object we enjoy, there is real appreciation of the craftsmanship that goes into bringing each object, whether it’s a clock or a cup, back to life. Even to the extent of the repair itself being a thing of beauty. It’s a tradition that goes back to Kintsugi — the ancient Japanese technique — which uses lacquer to repair a crack in a piece of porcelain and then embellishes it with gold. A visible repair tells the story of the object and connects us with its past. In Brighton, textiles practitioner Tom van Deijnan has set up the Visible Mending Programme. It is intended to highlight the art and artisanship of clothes repair and reinforce the relationship between the wearer and garment. The darn, done beautifully, not only extends the life of a garment but becomes in Tom’s words a ‘badge of honour’.
So what does this mean for brands. Brands need to take action, not just talk about it. There is justified concern for our environment and recognition of the role we each need to play in protecting it — which is reflected in our purchasing choices and in the brands we choose to associate with. From consumers we see a desire for autonomy and individualism. Maybe it’s the survivalist coming out in us all during these extraordinary times, but increasingly we need to feel in control of our decisions and literally be able to get under the bonnet. When so much is ubiquitous and generic we are looking for ways to make things our own, to uniquely reflect who we are.
Finally, because I thought this was a perfect ending — Kin means gold, Tsugi means connect — connect to the world, connect to the generations. A sentiment which feels incredibly relevant today.