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Sustainable Consumption Institute

Endangered practices - maintenance and repair

Sustainability is often framed in terms of innovation and change. Arguably, what's more important is the preservation of endangered practices: sustainable everyday activities, such as mending clothes, which are in danger of being replaced by more resource-intensive alternatives.

Repair Cafe logo and a man repairing something

‘Endangered Practices’ is a pilot project funded by the SCI that will focus on endangered everyday practices of mending and recent grassroots initiatives to preserve and revitalise such skills. The pilot project, which will begin in November 2018, will contribute to the development of a research funding bid with international collaborators in Finland and Estonia. The project builds on existing research by Helen Holmes on ‘thrift’ in households and third-sector organisations and Wouter Spekkink on the Repair Café movement, which has aims to preserve and promote practical knowledge about repairing.

Repair and maintenance draw attention to the increasing displacement of know-how from people to technologies, with significant implications for sustainability, as embodied practices are increasingly replaced by energy-using technologies. Technology and design increasingly preclude repair outside of an economic circuit determined by producers. For example, whereas car engines were once commonly amenable to amateur maintenance, modern models are ‘black boxes’ requiring increasingly sophisticated technology to maintain. Furthermore, amateur repair sometimes infringes guarantee terms, regulations or even intellectual property laws. Recently this situation has become politically contested by those calling for a “right to repair” pushing against the phenomena of planned obsolescence. The project will bring the perspective of sustainable consumption to the sociology of repair.

Whilst previous studies have recognised the significance of domestic-based repair and maintenance practices, particularly through activities such as DIY little research has explored how these practices diffuse through grassroots movements and the implications of this for reinvigorating these endangered practices. For example, Repair Cafés have grown from one café in 2009 to a movement of more than 1500 cafés around the world today. More research is required into the forms of organisation that make such a development possible.

Project activities

The pilot project will involve observation visits and interviews with 10 UK DIY mending and repair initiatives. This research will feed into the development of an international research funding bid with collaborators at Tartu University, Estonia and Jyväskylä University, Finland.

A bid development workshop will bring the international team together to work on a proposal for comparative research looking at endangered practices of mending and repair, local food practices (foraging and preserving) and mobility (such as children walking to school), in the UK, Estonia and Finland.

Research team

Ulrike Ehgartner, Helen Holmes, Wouter Spekkink and Dan Welch.