The 1951 film, ‘The Man in the White Suit’, is a classic comedy from Ealing Studios with a sinister edge. It tells the story of an inventor of a thread that never wears off. When his bosses at the factory discover what he’s doing, they hunt him down. A fabric that never runs out is the antithesis of capitalism and their business model.
65 years later, you could ask what has changed. Modern capitalism is still framed around a disposable culture where things are made not to last in order to sell more – the concept of ‘built-in obsolescence’. As consumers, we are taught to be dissatisfied with what we have. A recent documentary ‘The Lightbulb Conspiracy’ charts the way product design (of lightbulbs, and many other household objects) has increasingly been for shorter life-spans as a way of fuelling growth for growth’s sake.
For me, 20 years ago, it took the experience of a year living in a village in rural eastern Nepal to see how our culture of consumption in the developed world is not just manufactured, it is only one reality and possibility amongst many others. There, living in a household of 8 people for a year, we created less than a dustbin of waste. We got milk straight from the cow, vegetables unpackaged from the market and hoarded and refilled containers full of rice, kerosene and other staples. And when our precious stove broke down, we would get it fixed.
It was a culture shock not to go to Nepal – where I enjoyed an amazing quality of life as a volunteer teacher in a small community in the middle of a tea estate – but to return to London, confronted with the choice of 10 different brands of coffee in the supermarket aisle when I had been lucky to find one. I came to see this ‘choice’ as a false value and a high cost to pay for a linear economy which treats natural resources as expendable and infinite.
It got me thinking. How did we really measure progress? What kind of society did I really want to live in? How could we do things differently in the ‘developed’ world? What lessons could we learn from poorer communities that wasted nothing. I got a job, started volunteering at the new economics foundation, got a place on a sustainable development master’s course, and a job as a waste campaigner with radical environmental group Women’s Environmental Network.
For me the real ‘lightbulb’ moment of wanting to set up a reuse and repair centre came in Brixton as a member of my local community. I had joined the Transition Town Group –motivated by its positive and holistic vision and by the chance to meet local people. I started learning how to grow food, and went along to the meeting at the Town Hall to launch the Brixton Pound.
It was at the time of the recession, when the economy looked like it was collapsing and the focus was on the bankers. Brixton is a diverse and lively community, and it troubled me that some of the activities which seemed most useful, like the elderly man who repaired bikes in his front garden for low prices, seemed relatively overlooked. The town hall was packed, and at the end there was a chance for people to go up and share new ideas. I took a deep breath, and went to the front and asked
“What if we could have a centre where we could reuse and repair different materials instead of sending them to landfill or burning them? Why don’t we have elderly immigrants teaching unemployed bankers something useful?”
I got a laugh, and a cheer, and I also got to meet Hannah Lewis, a young designer who was interested in product design with a ‘remaking’ ethos. Hannah coined the phrase ‘Remade in Brixton’, and together we merged her idea with my vision for a reuse and repair centre.
Fast forward 7 years, and Hannah is now steering forward an ambitious vision for the Brixton ‘Remakery’. Together with others, she persuaded Lambeth Local Authority to gift the project a set of disused garages. Each one would be converted into a different social enterprise for reusing and repairing a different material stream. They set up as a cooperative consortium, secured funding from the Lottery to do the building development work, and are on the way to realising an ambitious vision.
Scotland has been my home for the last six years, and the vision for Remade in Edinburgh was similar, though the journey has been slightly different. But in common with Brixton, I seeded the project within the local transition group, not just keen to make the connections between local food and energy projects, but also motivated and sustained by the good feeling and encouragement of good folk who shared and supported the vision.
We had a wider meeting in the community in 2011, got some publicity in the Evening News, and showed a video of what was happening in Brixton alongside some wider context about reuse and repair centres in different places, from Oregon to Italy. There is a proven policy model which shows that having a city central community ‘hub’ linked to a larger out of town processing centre can not only reduce waste but create large numbers of jobs. We need to start planning for waste prevention as opposed to incineration or even recycling. It’s an obvious but often ignored truth that it means little to increase the amount of waste that’s recycled if the overall quantities of waste that are generated also increase.
30 people came to that meeting and signed up to volunteer with the project. The energy, enthusiasm and diversity of interested are what gave the project momentum and life. Coming from many backgrounds and walks of life the thing that united us all was a wish to create an alternative to a disposable society. Cherry, a long-term volunteer, ran her own sewing project and wanted to do something with other people. Julie, a local campaigner, wanted to see services designed for community residents, not tourists. Tony, a local business man, ran a white goods reuse project and was interested in the potential for repair. And Nancy, who worked in the local community centre, offered us our first treasure: free room rental once a week to run a repair session until we could pay our way. From the beginning we offered sewing and mending advice and computer repair.
We started the project with £60, and three years later we now have a small shop, five part-time members of staff, and a turnover of £50,000. We have won three awards: for social enterprise, for community action, and as the best ‘practical environmental project’ from climate campaign the 10:10 campaign, who set up a month of ‘remade around the world’ activities inspired by what we’d done.
Creating jobs is a very important part of our mission to me, although without volunteer involvement we couldn’t have done half as much. One of our most popular activities is our computer repair appointments with our computer expert Sotiris. Too often, people encounter the familiar scenario of their laptop not working, going to a shop and being persuaded to buy a new one over the cost of fixing what’s wrong. We work from a different perspective: we WANT people to keep their computers and charge an affordable and very competitive rate of £15 to £25 to not just fix their laptops, but to teach people to fix them. So the laptop’s life gets extended, and the customer also gains new confidence. And we are growing a sustainable business model.
Which just goes to show that the factory owners in the Man in the White Suit were wrong: you can have business which is based on a genuinely sustainable model that respects the earth and its limits.
It’s not been easy, with lots of hurdles and learning along the way, and lots of challenges to overcome in order to realise the vision of making a real impact in Edinburgh and beyond. We’re constantly running to stand still and sometimes I wonder if it’s worth the hard work. On the other hand, we’ve had some moments of real breakthrough: such as when the Council supported us with a service level agreement after I presented to their Finance and Resources Committee about the economic benefits of the centre. For every one job that is created by recycling computers, 100 jobs can be created by repairing them. And 27% of all goods in Edinburgh that are thrown away are still in working order. Statistics like this really seemed to make the politicians sit up!
I’m excited by the potential that this model has and particularly excited by the potential of joining with wider conversations about the role for reuse and repair centres in a circular economy. We need to tell the stories of where things come from and where things go to, not just the waste of chucking things out, but the waste of all the energy put into mining and making the household goods and gadgets we so take for granted. Other groups like the Restart Project, which runs free community repair parties funded by corporate training or Fairphone in Holland, which makes phones from conflict-free minerals, is part of this wider vision.
Our current priorities are redesigning the website to communicate our wider campaigning goals, and increasing our donations and sales of computers to increase our financial viability. The computer repair appointments are getting really popular through word of mouth so we want to see these grow too.
These days I’m starting to give talks, workshops and do consultancy to other groups interested in setting up repair social enterprise and I see the Transition Network as being a fertile culture to spread and share our learning and ideas, as well as to learn from others. I’d love to hear from other potential partners who would like to work with us to advance our mission.