It’s often more expensive to get a gadget or piece of clothing fixed than it is to simply buy a new one. This phenomenon is partially due to companies designing products so that consumers are incentivized to buy new rather than repair old. And as repair shops become few and far between, people with the specialized skills to fix things like electronics and furniture are becoming more rare.
The British social entrepreneur Sophie Unwin thinks there’s room for a new kind of repair shop with an entirely new business model. The Edinburgh Remakery, her shop in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, is part thrift shop, part maker space, part repair shop, and part learning center. It doesn’t just repair broken electronics, furniture, or textiles–it teaches customers to fix things themselves.
In stark contrast to previous generations of shops, where crotchety fixers armed with screwdrivers and power tools tinkered with dusty televisions, old electronics, and broken household goods, the Remakery is a colorful, vibrant nexus of repaired furniture and electronics, one-on-one lessons with experienced IT technicians, classes focused on skills like sewing, upholstery, and leatherworking, and people working on their own projects using the shop’s tools. Because the Remakery’s policy is that they always fix your stuff in front of you, the focus shifts from a transactional service to a learning experience.
Unwin’s vision of a new culture of repairability extends far beyond Edinburgh. With a new consultancy and franchise business in the works, you could one day find Remakeries around the world.
Turning A Movement Into A Business
Repairability was once designed into most everyday objects, and repair shops were an integral part of every community. After all, consumer goods were expensive, and it was common sense to repair them. But as the prices of appliances, furniture, and electronics dropped, many companies stopped making repairability a priority, and fewer consumers even considered repairing their broken belongings. Unwin is part of a movement that wants to make repair part of the natural life of products again, while empowering consumers to invest in the longevity of their things–an approach that’s more sustainable for society and for the environment.
The Remakery, which opened its doors a little more than one year ago, is the cornerstone of a larger social enterprise called Remade in Edinburgh. Founded by Unwin in 2011 with just $100 and a group of volunteers, Remade got its start with small, biweekly workshops that offered free laptop and sewing repair. By 2014, Unwin and her team moved into a small permanent space, and in 2016 they converted an old bank branch into a significantly larger retail storefront–the Remakery.
Even if its funding comes from the Scottish Government and from organizations like Zero Waste Scotland rather than venture funds, Remade is a startup, not a nonprofit. It started off entirely using grant money, but revenue from the business will cover 80% of costs in 2017. Along the way, Remade has helped more than 5,000 people learn repair skills, diverted 660,000 pounds of trash from landfills, and created 12 jobs and 20 freelance jobs in the process.
For Unwin, the goal of Remakery is twofold. First, the company helps prevent waste from going to the landfill–a valuable proposition for local governments, since she says they typically spend about $160 per ton of waste. She hopes to change the policy framework for how waste is paid for, so that more government money goes toward waste prevention projects, like Remade, rather than just funneling money into unsustainable waste treatment centers.
Second, Remade is showing how investing in repair and repair education creates jobs. Unwin believes that given the number of cities and towns in the U.K. and the success of the Edinburgh Remakery so far, there’s the potential to create 8,000 jobs in computer and electronics, furniture, and textile repair education. “I really believe that it’s a great way of saving costs for [local government] in terms of their waste disposal, but also the benefits in creating jobs are huge,” she says. “[You get] at least 10 times as many jobs from repair as you do from recycling.”
“These are useful skills that aren’t new, but they’re dying out”
Unwin first became interested in repair in the late 1990s, when she worked as a volunteer teacher at a farm in eastern Nepal. “It was a very different lifestyle to my life in London,” Unwin says. “We created less than one dustbin of rubbish, with six people in one house. That wasn’t our objective, but that was just the effect of how we lived.”
When she returned from Nepal, Unwin says she underwent reverse culture shock–the fact that there were 20 types of coffee in the supermarket, once a fact of life, became astounding. “It made me start thinking about how do we define progress, how do we define choice, and how do we design our lives in a way that works for us,” she says. “Waste isn’t something we want to create, so why are we living in such a wasteful society?”
While pursuing a masters in sustainability through a program with six-month work placements, Unwin spent time at a local authority in London where she learned about how governments manage waste. After graduating, she went to work in the nonprofit world, but was frustrated that the social impact the organizations were able to create was mitigated by the fact that work stopped when funding dried up.
“My interest was in creating a business model that would create jobs. Having had the experience of working with charities, I felt that was a bit of a flaw,” Unwin says. “I felt like if you’re going to make something work, if you can prove it’s a viable business, you can make it more credible. It’s hard to do volunteering. It distorts things because you only get people who can afford to do that. I didn’t want a project that was marginal, I wanted something where repair was mainstream.”
When Unwin moved to Edinburgh, she began researching if a repair education center would be a viable business in the city. “I would typically get a response like, this is impossible. It’s too cheap to buy something new, no one is going to pay to get something fixed. Lots of people said, you can’t have a business around repair,” she says. “I thought, you could have a business, but it’d be around repair education. People will pay to learn. These are useful skills that aren’t new, but they’re dying out.”
Nearly six years later, Unwin is now turning Remade into a consultancy and franchise. Today she’s launching a consultancy to help the dozens of interested communities in the U.K., Ireland, Canada, and New Zealand that have come to her about starting their own Remakeries. By working with more cities, she’ll continue to refine her business model. Later this fall, she’ll debut an app to find local repair shops that’s currently in beta.
In 2018, Remade will start a bona fide franchise, where anyone who wants to start up a Remakery will receive branding, templates, consulting time, and training to help with funding, location, recruitment, and business planning. After a launch period of 18 months, new Remakeries will pay 5% of their income back to the larger organization in return for continued support and to remain a part of the network.
Unwin hopes to also use Remade to advocate for designing products that are built to last. And because of the success of the business so far, she believes she has a real chance to affect change. “In campaigning, you’re always asking for things to be different,” she says. “But we have a solution.”