From Tractors to Phones, Companies Don’t Want You to Repair Stuff. Appalachians Are Fighting Back

Carolina NormanJuly 29, 2020

Volunteers fix all sorts of items at events like this one hosted by the Cville TimeBank Repair Cafe in Charlotteville, Va. in fall 2018.

Edi­tor’s Note: This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by the Appalachi­an Voice and is repub­lished here with permission.

Replac­ing your phone screen, turn­ing the rotors on your car and fix­ing the shut­ter on your cam­era – for many peo­ple, it is hard to imag­ine that you could not be allowed to fix the things you own. But this is exact­ly what a lot of com­pa­nies want: to pre­vent pub­lic access to the infor­ma­tion and parts to make repairs.

Mak­ing it hard­er to fix items influ­ences con­sumers to throw away every­thing from smart­phones and tele­vi­sions to dish­wash­ers and trac­tors. But there is a nation­wide mobi­liza­tion to dis­rupt this lin­ear, dis­pos­able sys­tem. In addi­tion to pro­mot­ing leg­is­la­tion that allows con­sumers the abil­i­ty to repair their own devices, the right-to-repair move­ment is focused on defend­ing the things we own against obso­les­cence. These efforts include sev­er­al com­mu­ni­ty groups focused on help­ing peo­ple repair their items as well as trans­form their rela­tion­ship with their belong­ings into one that does not end with the landfill.

Repair Com­mu­ni­ties

One of these groups is the Repair Hub in Boone, N.C. Pri­or to the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, the Repair Hub com­mu­ni­ty host­ed events each month where mem­bers of the pub­lic could bring items to vol­un­teers who helped repair them for an option­al dona­tion. Andy Groothuis, who found­ed the Repair Hub in 2019, says the repair process involves aspects of reduc­ing and reusing which, he says, are two sides [of the reduce, reuse, recy­cle’ waste hier­ar­chy] that are usu­al­ly, I find, overlooked.”

Groothuis states that when peo­ple have bro­ken items, they either dump them in a draw­er with the inten­tion of fix­ing it one day,” or, more often than not, he says, they are going to throw them out, and that item prob­a­bly could have been used.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, the Cville Time­Bank Repair Café in Char­lottesville, Va., which start­ed in 2015, hosts pub­lic events twice a year where par­tic­i­pants can bring up to three items to be repaired for free. The pres­i­dent of the Repair Café, Kathy Kildea, says Repair Café is a com­mu­ni­ty tool that gives peo­ple access to skills such as elec­tri­cal work and sewing that they may not have the resources to access on their own.

Kildea says the project is about uti­liz­ing those skills you have at your doorstep.”

One of the focus­es of the Cville Time­Bank Repair Café is edu­ca­tion. Peo­ple bring­ing in items are encour­aged to sit with the fix­ers” and watch repairs as they take place. There is also a kids’ take-apart table,” where kids get to explore the inner-work­ings of items. These inter­ac­tions fos­ter curios­i­ty and enable peo­ple to fix future goods that may break.

If you think any repair is beyond your means or beyond your abil­i­ty, you’re kind of sunk,” Kildea says. But if you come at it from the point of, Well, there’s just a piece in here that’s not func­tion­ing prop­er­ly, I just need to fig­ure out which one it is.’ Fos­ter­ing that sense of curios­i­ty is impor­tant not just for the kid, but for any cus­tomer that comes in with some­thing they want to get fixed.”

Kildea dis­cuss­es how cus­tomers often lament that when an item they bought inevitably breaks, they feel like their only options are to throw it away and buy a new one. Kildea says that most peo­ple are not hap­py about these options, but are not aware of any alternative.

I think [Repair Café] rein­forces that you may not know how to fix it, but there are peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty that prob­a­bly could. It’s a mat­ter of get­ting them in the same place to work on those fix­es,” she says.

Many of the items these two com­mu­ni­ties see tend to hold sen­ti­men­tal val­ue — espe­cial­ly jewelry.

A Repair Hub vol­un­teer in the jew­el­ry depart­ment, Kim Miller, has been repair­ing and mak­ing jew­el­ry for 15 years. She says that it is sat­is­fy­ing to see these cher­ished items repaired so they are able to get passed along again.”

Miller also spoke of the vol­un­teers’ efforts to keep the oper­a­tion going.

That’s pret­ty neat, too, to see peo­ple that inter­est­ed and more than will­ing to offer their time to help keep things out of the dump,” she says.

For many peo­ple in Appalachia, repair­ing is sec­ond nature. Whether it is out of neces­si­ty or enjoy­ment of things like mechan­i­cal work and quilt­ing, self-suf­fi­cien­cy has been a long­time prac­tice. Ben Holl­man is one of these fix­ers. A native of Todd, N.C., and a retired mechan­ic with the North Car­oli­na Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, Holl­man rais­es cat­tle, har­vests hay, plows gar­dens, and works on farm equipment.

Holl­man speaks of his var­i­ous projects, say­ing I just like doing that kind of stuff, and we’ve always kept cows. We had to get peo­ple to do our hay for us years ago, then I start­ed get­ting my own equip­ment and start­ed doing it myself.”

He grew up with a lot of knowl­edge of how things are done around the farm and his father taught him how to do mechan­i­cal work. Holl­man most­ly repairs his own equip­ment, but neigh­bors know to call him if they need help with their gear.

If I can and I’ve got the time, when some­thing breaks I usu­al­ly try to give [my neigh­bors] a help­ing hand,” Holl­man says. And I do go to their hous­es and change oil in their trac­tors for them to keep them going.”

With equip­ment becom­ing more com­put­er­ized, Holl­man says repairs have become more dif­fi­cult to perform.

That’s the rea­son I keep old­er mod­el trac­tors,” he says. I can work on them.”

Fair Repair Bills

Leg­is­la­tion known as fair repair bills” aims to pro­tect con­sumer rights by requir­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers to pro­vide cus­tomers and inde­pen­dent repair busi­ness­es with access to ser­vice infor­ma­tion and afford­able parts. At the fed­er­al lev­el, this type of leg­is­la­tion only cur­rent­ly exists for cars, which is why you have the choice between tak­ing your car to the deal­er­ship, your local mechan­ic or fix­ing it your­self when some­thing goes wrong.

But the repair move­ment is bring­ing repair-focused leg­is­la­tion to the state lev­el. In 2019, this type of leg­is­la­tion was intro­duced in 20 states. In West Vir­ginia, an auto­mo­tive repair bill was intro­duced in 2019 but did not move out of com­mit­tee. Vir­ginia leg­is­la­tors intro­duced a bill in 2020 deal­ing with the repair of dig­i­tal devices that also failed to progress past committee.

These types of leg­isla­tive pro­pos­als aim to release con­sumers from the cor­po­rate grip and pro­vide afford­able options to enable peo­ple to repair their goods. When com­pa­nies inten­tion­al­ly design prod­ucts with a lim­it­ed expect­ed lifes­pan and neglect to pro­vide con­sumers the resources to repair their goods, a prac­tice called planned obso­les­cence,” con­sumers are forced to buy new items when the prod­uct fails.

Com­pa­nies like John Deere and Nikon have tak­en mea­sures to make it more dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to repair their prod­ucts. In 2012, Nikon decid­ed to stop sell­ing gen­uine parts to third-par­ty repair shops. In March 2020, Nikon dis­con­tin­ued sup­ply­ing parts to the few remain­ing autho­rized repair shops, restrict­ing cus­tomers to send­ing their bro­ken equip­ment to one of Nikon’s two repair facilities.

The repair indus­try is fac­ing unique chal­lenges,” Kyle Wiens, CEO of online repair forum iFix­it, states on the group’s web­site. Inte­grat­ed elec­tron­ics are mak­ing it hard­er to fix things. And man­u­fac­tur­ers keep restrict­ing access to ser­vice doc­u­men­ta­tion, parts, and soft­ware — which forces con­sumers into more expen­sive man­u­fac­tur­er-autho­rized’ repairs and dri­ves small repair shops out of business.”

In 2016, the Insti­tute of Scrap Recy­cling Indus­tries adopt­ed a Right to Reuse” posi­tion in sup­port of recy­clers’ abil­i­ty to reuse prod­ucts. The posi­tion stat­ed, Reuse pro­vides an excel­lent envi­ron­men­tal and eco­nom­ic ben­e­fit. Despite these ben­e­fits, prod­uct man­u­fac­tur­ers lim­it the abil­i­ty of recy­clers to legit­i­mate­ly reuse prod­ucts; for exam­ple, by lim­it­ing parts and parts infor­ma­tion, man­u­als and uti­liz­ing dig­i­tal locks that impede a product’s reuse.”

When some­thing is tossed instead of repaired, it ends up in the land­fill ear­li­er than it might have oth­er­wise. The Unit­ed Nations esti­mates that 50 mil­lion tons of elec­tron­ic waste are gen­er­at­ed each year. This issue is ampli­fied as many elec­tron­ics have got­ten more com­put­er­ized, mak­ing it increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult for con­sumers to main­tain prod­ucts rather than buy new.

Repair com­mu­ni­ties are pro­vid­ing edu­ca­tion and repair assis­tance for con­sumers who may not see options beyond dis­pos­al. Com­mu­ni­ty pro­vides a sense of empow­er­ment that push­es con­sumers to reject planned obso­les­cence and move towards sus­tain­abil­i­ty, afford­abil­i­ty and self-sufficiency.

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