International Repair Day – the right to repair and the politics of practice

by | Oct 21, 2019 | All posts, Circular economy | 0 comments

As International Repair Day celebrates its third anniversary, Ulrike Ehgartner, Steffen Hirth and Dan Welch discuss the “right to repair” and endangered practices.

This year, International Repair Day fell on Saturday 19 October, a week that also saw the tenth anniversary of the opening of first ‘Repair Café’. Repair Cafés — usually temporary spaces where volunteers open the doors to the public to bring everyday items for repair — now number over 1,500 worldwide. The international movement underpins increasingly vocal calls for the “right to repair” that pushes back against the planned obsolescence of products and the increasing trend of product design to preclude repair outside of an economic circuit determined by producers. Amateur repair sometimes infringes guarantee terms, regulations or even intellectual property laws. For example, whereas car engines were once amenable to amateur maintenance, modern models are ‘black boxes’ requiring increasingly sophisticated computer technology to maintain. 

The right to repair

A hammer and spanner crossed on a sign representing the right to repair

Image credit: Electronic Frontier Foundation, CC licence

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 update to the EU EcoDesign Directive. While the corporations lobbied for legislation that would frame “eco-design” in terms of energy efficiency and producer controlled recyclability, the repair movement tooled up for citizens’ (and smaller businesses) right to repair. The substance of the right to repair is guaranteed access to spare parts and repair information for all, and ‘design for disassembly’ with widely available tools. Campaigners won a partial victory. Repair campaigners won cocessions 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 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.

Endangered practices and repairing society

In a pilot project we have conducted interviews and participant observation with initiatives that maintain or revive practices such as mending clothes or repairing everyday consumer goods.

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.

This 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. What the repair movement foregrounds is that at least as important as technological innovation is the preservation of endangered, sustainable practices. Often this amounts to the displacement of embodied know-how and practices by energy-using technologies. 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: everyday activities—such as mending clothes, walking children to school, or foraging and preserving foodstuffs—that are in danger of being replaced by more resource- and energy intensive alternatives. 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.