How the Repair Café started a global movement to slow down waste – and what we can learn from it

Almost ten years ago, a journalist called Martine Potsma decided to do something about the waste problems she saw around her, creating the first Repair Café. And this first Repair Café eventually grew from a one location event to a worldwide community far larger than the founder initially envisioned..

Today I’m going to share her story and how she inadvertently turned the Repair Café into a global movement, little by little. This story is really dear to my heart because 4 years ago I became part of the movement and co-founded a Repair Café collective in Nice, France.

If you don’t know the Repair Café, you should. It’s a non-profit foundation which is all about trying to minimize waste, use resources responsibly and connecting people in a new and inspiring way. It  addresses a problem that many people in the Western world will recognize: things break and when they do, many people don’t know what to do and just throw them away.

So the Repair Café is a free repair meeting organized by and for civilians on a voluntary basis. It’s fun and you learn about repairing. You have a chat, a cup of coffee and as a reward, in the end, in many cases, you go home with an object which is no longer broken and can be used again.

It went from a simple idea that started in Amsterdam, to a movement that has reached a few impressive feats:

  • In 9 years, it has gone from 1 to over 1.622 events in 36 countries (note: this figure is from October 2018)
  • At the events, the volunteers manage to repair around 70% of the appliances that are brought.
  • In that time, the Repair Café helped save an estimate 300.000 products from the landfill

Want to know how she did it? Keep reading.

Step 0: Getting the big picture as a Waste Management journalist, and taking the first step.

“I thought people don’t care. But I found out that they do care and they don’t feel good about their own behavior, but they don’t know what else to do.” — Martine Potsma

Martine Potsma Source: Repair Café

Martine Potsma started as a journalist and came up with the Repair Café concept after the birth of her second child. His birth led her to think more about the environment: “In Europe, we throw out so many things… It’s a shame, because the things we throw away are usually not that broken. There are more and more people in the world, and we can’t keep handling things the way we do.”, she reported for the New York Times.

At some point she started to feel like she wanted to do something about it rather than just write about it. To lower the amount of waste and energy wasted everytime we throw something away that could be repaired.

But there was this lingering doubt that you might also feel: “How do you try to do this as a normal person in your daily life?”

Inspired by a design exhibit about the creative, cultural and economic benefits of repairing and recycling, she decided that the first step for her would be helping people fix things as a practical way to prevent unnecessary waste.

“Sustainability discussions are often about ideals, about what could be,” she sais. “After a certain number of workshops on how to grow your own mushrooms, people get tired. This is very hands on, very concrete. It’s about doing something together, in the here and now.”

After covering sustainable stories for a while she was pretty accustomed to the problems that prevented people from repairing more. She noted a few things:

  • People don’t have the repair skills
  • they don’t have the tools
  • they don’t have time to focus on the subject

Also repair is dirty, creates noise and dust, and it’s boring. Plus, it is also not attractive because people think it’s difficult, it’s hard to find a repair guy, and if you find one he or she is expensive.

Once she knew what didn’t work and sucked, she made an inventory of the elements around her that could help solve these problems:

There are expert people in all communities who do have repair skills, tools and time.  Usually these people are so fond of tinkering that they’re more than happy to help. And repair is not that difficult. It is often easy and it can be fun when you do it together with an expert and when this expert is a volunteer, then it’s also cheaper than buying a new product.

So she put these ideas together and came up with the idea of organising a gathering once a month or once a week at the community center, get volunteers to bring their tools and then people from the neighborhood could show up with broken items, sit with the experts and then try to fix it together. And that’s how the idea of the Repair Café came up.

Takeaways:

  • Get deep into a subject you’d like to influence ;Journalists and researchers generally are well suited for this, so learn from them
  • Note down what sucks about the problems you’ve found
  • Find out solutions to the problems you’ve found, and see which persons, tools, data or funds you have to put them in place.
  • Make sure that your idea helps others feel belonging, connection, peace of mind, and an improved status for using or sharing your idea

Step 1: Start somewhere. Hopefully somewhere small.

Now that the idea was clear in her mind, to validate that others would like it and use it, she started talking about it with many people. Once she spoke to enough people, she decided to test the first Repair Café in practice.

To turn it into a viable event, she just went for things she had.

First, she rented a room in a building in Amsterdam which was a theatre at the time. Then she approached friends and craftsmen from the neighbourhood, collected tools and asked around.

Note that she didn’t do anything complicated, but leveraged the relationships with people she already knew or that could be approached easily.

In summary, she chose a simple format, approached people she knew, and rented a space to try the idea.

I’ve seen many organisations with great ambition but low cohesion spread too quickly who suffered from it.

Instead of validating a single idea at a time, these imploding organisations started organising events all over the world in their first year, and that led to each event doing their own thing and burning out the teams that led each projects.

Starting simple from the beginning will prevent you from suffering the same fate.

Whatever you try, always validate your idea at a low scale like the Repair Café or TED did. You’ll always have the time to scale later with a much stronger foundation.

Takeaways:

  • Share your initial idea with many people and get feedback from them
  • Instead of going for an idea that solves the whole problem at once, try to tackle it as a minimum viable experience. Create a minimum experience with the skills, money, network and spaces you already have at hand. If you can’t make it with what you have, it’ll be harder to prove others to give you more what you need to reach a higher vision, like money or attention
  • Make a list of those skills, tools, data or people you’re missing, and ask friends and professionals around you if they know if someone could help with that
  • Before you contact people for their help, ask yourself first if this is a worthy cause for them, and if so, how? How is this improving their status? How does it help them beel belonging, connection, and peace of mind? Once you have this figured out, present it to them
  • If it’s too hard to make happen, your idea is either not appealing enough for others to help, or too complicated to put in practice, so twick or move on to another idea

Step 2: Attract your Smallest Viable Audience

To attract people to her event she wrote a press release and sent it to the media. And she set everything up on October 18th of 2009.

That morning she just hoped for the best.

She had no idea if anyone at all was going to show up. But luckily soon after they opened, the first people started to come in carrying bags and stuff and asking if they had come to the right place and if this was indeed the Repair Café.

Well, it was. And that’s how it began.

They had a seamstress, a carpenter, some guys from computer club, and two bicycle repairers.

But all day people were queuing for the guy repairing small electrical household appliances. This guy didn’t have time to take a break all day. He repaired video players, toasters, kettles, sewing machines, electrical toothbrushes, lamps all day.

And participants were extremely happy to receive help to fix their precious things. “The atmosphere was so positive that for me it was clear that I had to go on with this idea.” Postma said.

Repair café Amsterdam-West Credit: Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Note again the simplicity of her approach.

To attract her first participants she didn’t go after a complicated growth hacking strategy. She just leveraged her journalist skills to write a press release and promote it.

Whatever you want to create, you’ll need to develop a skill to communicate your idea to the outer world. That could be writing press releases, sticking a flyer on a lamppost, blog posts, facebook posts, shooting youtube videos, events, webinars, shouting in the street naked…

Whether you like it or not, if you want to create some change in the world, you have to expose yourself.

If you don’t, nobody will see what you’re trying to do and join you.

If you haven’t already built a network of people around you, it’s never too late to do it.

For Potsma, journalism helped her establish relationships with other people and teach her how to use the press as a megaphone.

In your case it could be attending meetups, participating in a local non-profit, or joining a sports club. But again, you have to build your relationships to start. Even before you worry about creating a new idea.

If you’re getting a hard time getting others to pay attention to your ideas, teach yourself at least one way to communicate your ideas to others. Or improve the ways you already communicate.

Then get out the door and help others.

Takeaways:

  • Decide one way to reach out to attract your first audience
  • Find the kind of people or tribe that craves for the same vision as you do, go where they are, participate, share and start building relationships with them
  • And be open to your idea not working. If it doesn’t work you’ll have learned what didn’t work, and you can use this insight to make your next idea better

Step 3: Scale only when people ask you to scale, not when you want world domination.

After her first Repair Café, the concept was validated both by the volunteers who showed up to help others, and by the participants who showed up to repair their objects.

But the best validation was that, after the first Repair Cafe, many people approached Potsma asking to grab a coffee for advice on how to do something like this in their own community.

“Well, I wanted to, but there were so many people asking me that I couldn’t possibly have coffee with all of them.“, she says.

Now she really needed to scale. Not because she thought she had to or because she wanted a bigger impact. But because people were ASKING her to scale. This is the main clue you should ever follow before you ever think of scaling.

So she started thinking about a way to be able to advise more people at the same time. To begin the scale up she founded the Repair Cafe Foundation and she wrote a manual on how to start your own Repair Café.

This manual guides you through all the stages of its organization. From finding volunteers to selecting a venue, to creating a safe working environment, and so on…

Gradually this manual developed into a starter kit which now contains lots of additional documents and templates as well. For instance:

  • Posters to decorate the room
  • Registration forms that the visitors can fill out to indicate what they’re bringing and what’s wrong with it
  • A ready made press releases that you can send to the media
  • And more…

And the foundation also opened the starter kit for others to contribute with their translations.

Today the starter kit is available in seven languages and it can be ordered from the website repaircafe.org.

You can now download, print and use this digital starter kit to set up your own repair cafe.

Looking back, this starter kit has been the best ingredient to spread the event to 1.622 events in 36 countries around the world.

Thanks to the manual and its translations, now the Repair Cafés can be found in the Netherlands where it was born, but also in neighboring countries like Belgium, Germany, France, UK, or more distant countries like the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey or Japan.

So there you have it. Once people ask for more, give them the steps and materials they need to do it themselves. This way you’ll multiply the value of your efforts without having to multiply yourself exponentially.

Takeaways:

  1. Once and only once people ask you to scale your project, document the method and templates you’ve used to organize your project, and share it with them. This is the best way you’ll have to scale your time and the impact of your efforts without having to organize everything yourself.
  2. Offer others to help with the translation of your manual and templates to their own language. This can instantly multiply the reach your project can have around the globe.

In Summary

So that’s how you create a movement. By following these simple steps, Martine Potsma went from a single event to onboarding thousands of volunteers who have helped organize 1600 events in 36 countries and fix over 300.000 products that would have otherwise ended up at the landfill.

Here are the 7 takeaways you can tailor to your project based on Postma’s experience:

  1. Write down what sucks about a problem you’re deeply concerned about
  2. Find out what you can offer to create an appealing alternative (even if it seems small)  
  3. Validate the idea by sharing it with other people who’d be interested
  4. Put your first prototype together in the simplest possible way with whatever you have at hand
  5. Find a way to gather an audience, whether with a press release, blog post, flyers that you stick to a lamppost or whatever other idea you are comfortable doing
  6. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, don’t get discouraged. Whatever the results, enjoy that you learnt what worked and what didn’t. But more importantly, you started doing something. Go start again with what you learned
  7. When it starts working beyond your own capacity, scale by creating a manual with the procedures and templates that will allow others to organize and spread your idea
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Sources:
Fixfest – Martine Postma: Sparking a Global Movement
An Effort to Bury a Throwaway Culture One Repair at a Time 


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Jaime Arredondo

Creator at Bold&Open and shaker of collaborative projects
Jaime Arredondo
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