This article was originally written on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the first Repair Café in 2019, and International Repair Day. To commemorate this notable week for repair, we spoke with Martine Postma, the activist and former journalist who started the Repair Café movement as we know it. It was updated in September 2021 to make it a timeless celebration piece of a movement that has been growing even more ever since.
Our lives are packed with things. But what happens to those things when they’re broken, worn out, or not needed anymore? That’s one of the questions that drove Martine Postma during her work as a journalist. Postma’s articles focused on sustainability and how to reduce and prevent waste. In 2009, she did a story on Platform 21’s art exhibition on repair. She was so inspired by the practice of fixing things that she started the world’s first Repair Café in Amsterdam that same year.
“I wanted to do more than just write about it,” Postma says. “More and more people don’t feel good about our throw-away society and are ready for change. [They] don’t throw away because they want to, but because they don’t know what else to do.”
Paving the way for a global movement
Postma’s first Repair Café in Amsterdam was a big success. People were grateful for the help fixing things, and they wanted the same kind of spaces available in more places. So Martine started the Repair Café Foundation in 2011 to provide professional support to groups starting their own Repair Cafés.
Today, there are more than 2,000 Repair Cafés in more than 30 countries, and together they prevented around 420,000 kilos of waste in 2019 alone. According to the foundation’s calculations, that’s approximately 10 million kilogram of CO2 successfully prevented. Coffee machines made up most of those items, but people have brought everything to Repair Cafés: vacuum cleaners, bicycles, lamps, trousers, sewing machines, clocks, coats, irons and laptops.
“Many products people bring to Repair Cafés are not really broken,” Martine says. “They just need some attention. They need to be cleaned, lubricated, or descaled. In many cases, the solutions are really simple. But people are lacking knowledge on how to take care of, maintain, or fix things, and that’s a problem.”
From grassroots to a political movement
This lack of knowledge isn’t always consumers’ fault. Manufacturers often don’t provide repair information to consumers, and spare parts are hard to find. “Also, modern products are often good enough to last a few years, but not made to last for decades,” Martine says. “And when they break, replacing them is not only cheaper, but also easier than looking for a spare part and the right repair manual.”
That’s why the Repair Café Foundation introduced the Repair Monitor, an online tool that enables Repair Café volunteers to register repair data about the products and brands brought to their cafés. With Repair Monitor, volunteers can log information like product defects and the success of specific repairs. That information is then turned over to the Foundation to provide insights into the durability and repairability of the products we use daily. Political action, including the new Ecodesign regulations in Europe, is a step in the right direction towards improving the way those products are made—but that kind of large scale action takes time.
In the meantime, Martine Postma wants to inspire people to reconsider their relationships with stuff and think outside the (waste) box. “Every now and then it’s good to look at things from a different point of view,” she says. That’s what she did herself 10 years ago when she visited the Platform 21 program on repair—and repair became her passion.
Martine’s wish for the future is a richer and more diverse repair landscape: “You can buy new stuff anywhere, anytime. We should have these options for repair, too.” By giving people more choices, repair could be for anyone: whether it’s at-home DIY, done with others at a Repair Café, or bringing something to a professional and paying a fair price. “There’s plenty of possibilities to move to a society where repair is considered as normal.”
Changing the world starts with a change in thinking
The repair movement and the Right to Repair still have a way to go, but the good news is: all you need to do to change your own status quo is change the way you think. Fixing things is not as hard as many people expect, whether you’re replacing a smartphone battery or mending clothes. And repair doesn’t just connect us to our stuff, either—it also helps us connect with other people, whether it’s through the iFixit community or those nice folks who helped you fix your coffee machine at a Repair Café.
One day Martine hopes that Repair Cafés might not be needed anymore. When repair becomes embedded in society, repair won’t be considered a special event that only happens once or twice a month. What will Martine do then? “I’ll work in the garden,” she says. “And I’ll enjoy the little things.”