Care and Repair Jane Fulton Suri

Strengthening bonds with the things we buy

In times of economic uncertainty consumers often revise their thoughts about value. While some people may consider downgrading to less expensive things, many recognize the false economy of buying cheaper items with a shorter life. There have always been enthusiasts who love to restore and repair, but increasing numbers of people now believe that it’s wasteful to discard things that are still usable. As a result, quality, durability, and easy refurbishment have become valuable attributes in purchases that individuals and families make. They are looking for things they can keep and care for and enjoy for longer periods of time.

Financial constraints are reminding us of simple pleasures that we overlooked in more affluent times: taking care of the things we love and growing our love for the things we take care of.

The Evidence — Stories from around the globe

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Build to Last

The shelves behind the counter at Model Shoe Renew in Berkeley, California, are lined with shiny resoled shoes. “Business is booming,” says owner Peter Kemel with a smile. “This year, everyone’s looking to get another season out of their shoes.”

Allen-Edmonds understands this from a different angle. Alongside its line of handcrafted luxury men’s shoes, the company website has a step-by-step video showing the rebuilding of a shoe using its proprietary “recrafting” service. It’s a powerful message about the company and its customers’ desire to care for treasured personal items.

Certainly it costs less to get new soles than to buy new, but it’s not just about money. “People fall in love with their footwear,” observes Peter Kemel. “I’ve even put new soles on a favorite pair of flip-flops.”

What new brands or offerings might companies build around people’s desire to cherish things long-term?

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Design for service

Samuel Ndung’u Mburu relies heavily on his beloved Money Maker Deep Lift Pump. This simple device, which helps him irrigate his crops in the harsh environment of rural Kenya, is actually an elegant feat of engineering that balances extreme economic and cultural constraints.

Design engineer Jon Kaplan explained how economic hardship was a spur to innovation: “Subsistence farmers need to repair their own tools. So instead of a conventional system with tight-fitting precision seals, we came up with a new mechanism that uses a long, sloppy-fitting piston to push water up through the pipe.” But this represents more than mechanical ingenuity. Because the pumps are durable, long-lived, and easy to service with local skills and local materials, they support the independent livelihood of thousands of villagers.

Can design deliberately lower barriers to maintenance and repair?

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Cultures of repair

Jan Chipchase, Nokia’s world-roving behavioral researcher, calls them “cultures of repair” — the shops and stalls found in every emerging economy that service mobile phones. Located within a repair ecosystem of enormous scale, these “street hacks” operate with little more than “a screwdriver, a toothbrush (for cleaning contact points), the right knowledge, and a flat surface to work on.”

The repair culture is also taking hold closer to home. Lastyearsmodel.org enlists a growing community of people dedicated to extending the life of products. Rather than discard an outmoded but basically functioning device, they’re dedicated to repairing, refurbishing, or adapting it (and sharing their knowledge): “Fixed a set of iPod speakers today with a new power adaptor instead of buying a new pair.”

What new business opportunities could support people’s desire to fix things themselves?

Modular refurb

The modular format of carpet tiles allows individual tiles to be rearranged or replaced to cope with wear, damage, or stains, instead of installing an entirely new carpet roll. Interface’s FLOR tile system is a relatively expensive initial purchase, but has become increasingly popular because of its long-term economy combined with a pioneering program recycling used tiles.

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Service included

In the UK, Daihatsu recently offered 5 years or 45,000 miles of free servicing for all their Mini SUV Terios registered between January 1 and March 31, 2009. Rather than addressing customers’ concerns simply through extended warranties or insurance, the automaker fulfilled their desire for durable value by offering the option of free routine maintenance.

Making do

As many did during the Great Depression, Americans are making a virtue out of necessity.

“People aren’t throwing things out,” reports Marketwatch.com. “They’re fixing what they have, preferably on their own, from repairing clothes to repairing plumbing problems.” Commenting on products at this year’s International Home and Housewares Show, Tom Mirabile, VP of global trend and design at Lifetime Brands said, “There’s definitely a return to what we might call ‘home arts.’ There’s almost a prideful resurgence of ‘I can do it’.”

Knowing how

Much like the informal knowledge networks that connect the street hacks of Mumbai and Nairobi, specialist knowledge in our own connected world is now widely available and broadly shared: Check out the step-by-step instructions for fixing a hairdryer at ehow.com, or learn how to darn your favorite socks on YouTube.

Discussion

Jane Fulton Suri

April 23, 2010

Today is Earth Day 2010 and iFixit launched a “global repair community” with the aim of supporting user-repairs of any device.

Also, much older, Platform 21 from Amsterdam is worth a look. They have published a repair manifesto.

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anuya

June 11, 2010

The shelves behind the counter at Model Shoe Renew in Berkeley, California, are lined with shiny resoled shoes. “Business is booming,” says owner Peter Kemel with a smile. “This year, everyone’s looking to get another season out of their shoes.”

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Josh Fischer

September 8, 2010

In China there is already a culture of repair, but not so much care. There are many small repair shops to fix everything from broken cell phones, to your toaster. These items are often refurbished and then resold here. With the many of the components readily available it is very easy for this culture to take root.

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Meena Kadri

November 12, 2010

Here’s a selection of posts from our REculture blog which explores the post-consumption economy of repair, reuse, recycle and repurpose by businesses at the Base of the Pyramid: http://bit.ly/b8iKJD

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Jane Fulton Suri

November 15, 2010

Thanks for this contribution Meena. Your link reminds me of the wonderful work of Vladimir Arkhipov who collects self-made and re-made objects and has published them in a book called Home-Made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts. It’s a beautiful book with lovingly-told tales of the origin and purpose of each essentially functional object. Such an inspirational reminder of the powerful (emotional) connection between human and material.
Here’s a link to the book: http://amzn.to/a6s8NS

Also happy to say that he has written a chapter in the newly published book “Design Anthropology” edited by Alison J. Clarke (http://tinyurl.com/2uw8ljt) where other chapters also dig deeper into our profound relationship with stuff!

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Jane Fulton Suri

November 15, 2010

Josh’s point is well-taken…the activity of reparation may not always be accompanied by and attitude of care. Sometimes the investment of time and energy may without commitment and connection—does any one have thoughts on the conditions or context that lead one way or the other?

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Liz Ogbu

December 22, 2010

Really interesting ideas. I think as a society, we could stand to talk more about how to change our perception of waste. The design community, in particular, could play a major role in that conversation.

Coming from an architecture perspective, I wanted to point out a couple resources in that arena. The “Design for Reuse Primer” (http://designforreuse.org/Design_for_Reuse/default.htm) is an electronic publication recently released by my organization, Public Architecture, that features case studies and resources about material reuse within the built environment. A few years ago, we were also involved in ScrapHouse (http://www.scraphouse.org), a demonstration house built completely of waste. The Building Materials Reuse Association (http://www.bmra.org) and the Reuse Alliance (http://www.reusealliance.org/) also have a great links to resources.

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Bevin Hernandez

December 29, 2010

A fascinating topic…thanks to this just this morning I was inspired to and able to repair my toaster, which is normally deemed a throwaway item. The five minutes I spent troubleshooting it (there was a small formica(?) covered piece of cardboard that had ripped and was shorting out the elements) saved me $30 or so to buy a new one. The design of the toaster itself did not lend itself to fixing it, which is disappointing, but the impact of fixing it was great - I’ve made the equivalent of $30 in 5 minutes ($360 an hour isn’t a bad salary to command), I’ve lessened my footprint on the planet, and I’ve learned something about how toasters function. Not bad!

Continuing that line of thought…on our small farm we use old pallets as building materials constantly - they are great for building sheds and all sorts of structures. They are one of our “lego pieces” that we find most useful. The carpet example is another example of lego pieces…what if we could do that with more of our building materials? I’m not articulating this well, but I could see that with basic kit parts (pallet-based boxes, keystones, arches etc.) you could design something that would allow people to easily snap things together and build new things. Grown up legos?

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Jane Fulton Suri

December 29, 2010

Thank you for these resources Liz; the design community certainly does have an important leadership role to play in modeling and encouraging considerate use and reuse.

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Jane Fulton Suri

December 29, 2010

It’s exciting to hear of this personal experience and the ideas it sparked! In particular it was good to share your pleasure at learning something about how toasters function. And now, just curious, now you’ve invested even 5 minuted in it, I wondered if you feel greater fondness for it? Anyway, enjoy your toast!

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Bevin Hernandez

December 29, 2010

I do actually feel a bit fonder of my toaster - but that may be a matter of personal pride that I was able to fix it.

It seems to me that there is a perceived value in something that is able to be fixed, versus something that is designed to be throwaway. I’m not sure I’m articulating this well at all, but…it’s like when you provide your services for free, people automatically devalue what you provide. Having something be repairable twitches something in my head that says “this is worth saving”, and therefore makes it more valuable in my eyes.

Still not sure that’s a good articulation, but it’s the best that I’ve got this afternoon!

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Bevin Hernandez

December 31, 2010

Another thought…what if things were repairable, using standard tools, standard screws, standard everything…and didn’t require an engineering degree to figure out.

I’d love to buy a line of appliances (or other things) that I could figure out, had one set of tools that would work with it (while many men find it wonderful to have a garage full of tools, I personally find it annoying that there are no good standards), and for the love of all that is good and holy, please make the instructions in plain english? I know there are ways to explain how these things work without using the technical terms of x discipline.

I want my appliance experience to be like that of my mac. I opened my mac, it asked me for my username and password and from there on in it just worked. Why couldn’t my dryer work the same way? Why did I have to rewire the whole thing in order to hook it up to begin with, and why if it breaks is the manual in some technical jargon?

Okay </rant> smile

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Adriana

January 13, 2011

I really enjoyed reading this post, it reminded me of my father when I was a child and how he would teach us how to mend or fix things in the house before thinking of buying a new one.  On a similar note, I recently came across with a KickStarter project called “Fixers Collective”.  This is a social experiment in improvisational fixing and mending.

For the past year and a half, they have been meeting weekly in a small work-space and have fixed hundreds of objects that have been brought through their doors.

One of their goals is To encourage the community to take liberties with designated forms and purposes, resulting in mended objects that exist both as art and within a utilitarian context.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1701996267/fixers-collective?ref=newsletter&utm_campaign=Dec29&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter

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Jeff Weiner

January 19, 2011

I had an interesting experience along these lines recently with some luggage.  I had initially bought a TUMI carry on 10 years ago due to its reputation for durability.  When both the handle and handle plate cracked, I took it into a local authorized repair shop.  I was advised that it was out of warranty, but that repairs would be “inexpensive.” Because the initial price of the piece was around $500, I mistakenly assumed “inexpensive” would be between $50-$100.  Not only was the replacement a mere $8, but when I picked it up, I wasn’t charged anything.  It seems that the repair shop had noticed a trend of the handle plate cracking, called TUMI to discuss extending the warranty to cover these handle plate repairs and TUMI agreed.

Not only was the product built for easy and inexpensive repair, but the manufacturer recognize the (very minor) design flaw in their product and corrected it well after the warranty period.

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Tim Cooper

January 27, 2011

Good to see this debate rising up the agenda. For much more on product longevity readers may wish to see a recent book, Longer Lasting Products, which has chapters by several key design thinkers as well as experts from other relevant disciplines such as marketing http://www.gowerpublishing.com/isbn/9780566088087

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Michael Doherty

February 8, 2011

Thanks for this Care & Repair pattern.  It really struck a cord with me.  My grandfather died before I was 10 years old so I didn’t know him well but I know him through the stories from my mother.  He was what might be called a ‘rag-and-bone’ man but I suspect that this doesn’t quite capture what he was about.  He was an early recycler - he would, for example, collect empty coal sacks and glass bottles from his customers and deliver them to the relevant factories which would pay him for the service.  I think he was also something of a one-man-ebay as he would take note of items his customers were looking for and if he could source that item elsewhere would arrange the trade.  In short, he made a living from non-new goods.  (It seems he was pretty good at it too - my mother tells me he was one of the first men in the neighbourhood to own a car!)

I am sure that there is some of my grandfather in me.  I love the idea of restoring and renewing worn out items, be they electronic or otherwise.  (This has the unfortunate side effect of driving my wife mad because I hate to see anything thrown out as trash).  For example, I have a collection of music on cassette tapes which I refuse to bin because I have an old (working) cassette player which I will one of these days figure out how to connect to my PC so that I can digitise my collection (maybe there’s even a business model somewhere in there??).

There is a point to these ramblings which is this: much as some people love to care for and renew their beloved items, there is a counterpoint attitude which is love for the brand new.  Why is one preferred over the other?  Are there two kinds of people - those who love the well-worn and those who love the shiney new?  Or is everybody capable of both depending on the item in question??  I don’t have answers to these questions but I find the subject fascinating grin

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Kirk Soderstrom

February 17, 2011

A product’s usable life span is designed to create a constant revenue stream for companies. Is it a surprise that the vast majority of consumers replace televisions, computers, cell phones and cars more frequently than in the past? The media conditions consumers’ desires to “need” the latest model.

For one of my MBA projects, we applied the Cradle to Cradle lenses to address the product design life-cycle of a mattress… a commodity product. In our research, we discovered that the United States alone discards enough mattresses, each year, to fill the area of a football field to a height of 6 Empire State Buildings!

The previous example only highlights one product. Our pattern of consumption relates directly to the earth’s limited capacity to produce resources, with respect to an ever-increasing global population.

I believe the question of resources demands industries to adopt new models. So, instead of throwing products into landfills at the end of their useful life, is there a way to keep these resources in the economic loop, by creating sustainable service models? Examples exist… the aluminum recycling business model could be applied to other industries.

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livia9

November 4, 2011

I was inspired to and able to repair my toaster, which is normally deemed a throwaway item. The five minutes I spent troubleshooting it (there was a small formica (?)) covered piece of cardboard that had ripped and was shorting out the elements.

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Jane Fulton Suri

November 4, 2011

Congratulations on repairing your “throwaway” toaster! May it serve you well for years to come.

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Jay Waterman

April 4, 2012

It’s not just for economic reasons that some people want to recycle or prolong the use of some things they have. Sometimes we cannot let go of something we feel so comfortable with that repair is a welcome solution rather than a brand new purchase.

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