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business models, strategies and technologies

From Repair Café to reputation building

Repair Cafés provide an attractive “franchisable” way to implement circular-economy thinking – rooted in community not product

Set up in 2010, the Amsterdam-based Repair Café Foundation has a wonderful genre-bridging perspective that seems to provide a great example of how circular economy measures can be made to work in practice.

The Foundation wants to bring back and re-invent the basic idea of repair as a part of local communities and how they work. It aims to maintain and spread repair expertise, and to promote social cohesion by bringing together neighbours from all walks of life and with many different motivations for getting involved. This is done in the form of inspiring and accessible meetings focused on both the idea and practice of “repairing stuff” instead of just junking it. Which in turn ties in with the whole “Right to Repair” movement (as opposed to this “ability to repair” approach), which I’ll be writing about in another post.

The Repair Café idea seems great, and an internationally “franchisable” concept (see here – there are apparently 1473 of them worldwide, as of February 2018) that seems to be gaining in popularity. But what’s the long-term perspective? How can the concept avoid focusing more on the symptoms than on the systemic imbalances that cause them? How can “making repair easier and more attractive” tie back into the bigger picture of a whole mindset about disposable manufacturing designed and configured to limit any need for repair?

Data is power

A Repair Café news item seems to provide some intriguing indications of a way forward. It centres around RepairMonitor, an online tool that twelve Dutch Repair Cafés used to keep track of the broken products they received in 2017, and to register what was wrong with them and whether the repairs were successful. Repair Café users can also use the RepairMonitor to indicate whether they were able to find useful repair information online. The 2017 RepairMonitor report revealed that such repair information was only found available in 16% of cases.

RepairMonitor provides solid data for making it clear that repairing broken items is a sensible thing to do. It seems to document that the average success rate in the 12 Dutch Repair Cafés was fairly high, at 65%. For electrical appliances, the figure was 55%. And of the top ten most-brought-in product types, only two (laptops and printers) had a successful repair rate below 50%.

But, at root, this kind of data only justifies the viability of the Repair Café idea. To pun pathetically, this is really a circular argument. Documenting the success of a remedy, but not tackling the cause.

The power of feedback

It gets interesting because the RepairMonitor data also identifies the relative “repairability” of different brands of consumer goods. It puts a data-driven number on how easy it is to repair (for example) Miele or Philips coffee machines, vacuum cleaners or irons. The report notes – also for example – that Samsung products have a remarkably low repair success rate. This kind of data feedback is not good for any corporate reputation, whether with old-school or new-school perspectives.

This seems like a remarkable commercial opportunity for the manufacturers of consumer goods that normally just end up incinerated, in landfills or inefficiently recycled as just raw materials. A company’s attempts at improved repairability would be registered directly in reports that get scrutinised by key target groups. Perhaps even more importantly, they’d get noticed and talked about by an international squad of enthusiastic potential ambassadors with a natural interest in spreading the word about how well your company’s products fit into next-generation economic models.