It's hard to imagine a system where your good housekeeping, both of finances and resources, was considered a key component of the national economy. Until the 1950s – the postwar period where industrialization boomed – what we now call 'consumer goods' were often produced close to or even in the home. "With decentralized, small-scale, and local production, many people knew how things were made: t-shirts, trousers, cutlery, plates, chairs, tables, and more. With these insights and the widespread notion of frugality in the understanding of the economy at this time, repair skills were central to everyday life,” explains Dr. Joppe van Driel, Program Developer Circularity in Urban Regions at AMS Institute. Ultimately, "repair was very 'economical' – a way to keep your resource stock in good order."

This transformed when GDP entered the economics discourse: unpaid work – like repairing things at home – was no longer part of the nation's housekeeping and bookkeeping. Economic policies orientated at cheap production and shortening consumption cycles proliferated to spur mass consumption and boost what counts for GDP: paid work and added revenues.

“Many things disappeared: repair skills and sites, such as household workshops for small-scale production, time and energy to repair things in everyday life, people's knowledge, feelings, emotions and consciousness around producing something [themselves], and last but not least, the economic value attached to repair practices (unless it was specialized paid repair, which would count in GDP measurements)”

Joppe van Driel

Program Developer Circularity in Urban Regions

We will recognize this model as our own: consumerism, where new goods are always within reach, people are exhausted after working long hours, buying new can be the easiest and cheapest option, and many everyday days goods are black boxes of confusion, built in a far-away factory—rendering the idea of repair impossible for many.

Is the EU looking to revive repair?

While the lives of people living in the 1900s were by no means easy— wellbeing indicators such as life expectancy and access to healthcare were very low—society did live within the safe limits of the planet. Nowadays, while much of society has benefitted from increased living standards coming from higher material use, be it well-connected transport hubs, hospitals being built, and easy access to food, the environment has been pushed to breaking point. Material use has increased by more than three times over the last 50 years: if every person in the world lived like the Dutch, we'd need three planets worth of materials.

Repairing broken goods rather than disposing of them would allow vast amounts of materials to remain within the Dutch economy, lessening environmental stressors such as pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and boosting community cohesion in the process. But moving from a throwaway to a repair culture will not be easy—even though TU Delft's research shows that Dutch people want to waste less and repair more.

Fortunately, bringing the lost skill of repair back into society has been on the EU's agenda. The latest EU legislation in this vein (coined the Right to Repair) seeks to make repair the go-to option for a range of everyday goods (think washing machines and vacuum cleaners). In summary, the policies require manufacturers to provide spare parts and repair services, thereby enabling consumers to—in theory—participate in the more sustainable and circular practices that were commonplace for our grandparents and great-grandparents.

“The EU's right to repair legislation comes at a crucial moment for efforts to transition to a circular economy by focusing on extending the lifespan of products, reducing waste, and 'empowering' consumers to participate actively in the circular economy through repair and maintenance activities.”

Mary Greene, Assistant Professor in Sustainable and Circular Consumption at Wageningen University & Research

The legislation could bring big opportunities for consumers, manufacturers, and the environment alike

To cater to consumers asking for more repair options, manufacturers will also need to adapt and "need to design products that are easier to repair, potentially impacting their production processes and cost structures. The legislation challenges manufacturers to innovate in product design and service offerings to align more closely with circular economy principles," adds Mary. This could also lead to a rise in circular business models.

Meanwhile, for the environment, Ruth Mugge, Full Professor in Design for Sustainable Consumer Behavior at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, TU Delft, explains that enhancing repair via this legislation could lead to substantial benefits.

“Reducing the overall demand for new products, decreasing resource extraction, extending the life of products, and minimizing the need for new materials; overall, repair practices can contribute significantly to reducing the ecological footprint of consumption.”

Ruth Mugge, Full Professor in Design for Sustainable Consumer Behavior at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, TU Delft

All experts note that for the legislation to make repair a viable option for consumers, critical challenges arise in shifting societal norms and practices, and in building the necessary infrastructure to support and promote repair and maintenance services. To explore this further, we'll consider two projects from AMS Institute that bring repair to society from different angles:

  1. The power of understanding and trust in opting for electronics repair

Mugge, who has done extensive research on how consumers see repair, notes that many products aren't considered as repairable (Van den Berge, Magnier and Mugge, 2023); its not even an option for consumers. This is especially prevalent with electronics: ICT hardware, such as laptops and data servers, accounts for 20% of all Dutch e-waste, and much of it is thrown out after only three to four years of use. An IT-focused AMS Institute and TU Delft project engages organizations that use huge amounts of IT hardware, like municipalities, universities, and hospitals, and works with facility managers to make better, faster, and more science-based decisions to improve the sustainability of their IT environment. It aims to double the lifetime of the hardware and is currently its approach in various Field Labs.

Seeing as most people get their laptops and smartphones via their work, having businesses shift from replace to repair-first for their IT goods could deliver huge environmental benefits, explains van Driel, co-lead of the project at AMS Institute.

What has become clear so far, notes van Driel, is that when decision-makers see the environmental benefits they can achieve via the project’s tool (related to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and toxins and saving water, for example) by opting for refurbished laptops over new ones, for example, they are hugely positive about doing so. More often than not, nudging people towards circular options requires such education.

Secondly, it requires trust. Some organizations involved cited concern about the reliability of repaired products compared to new ones. Here is where legislation can be very powerful: forcing companies to integrate design for repair into their products to ensure reliability. And fortunately, many companies already do this.

“IT suppliers can guarantee and support longer lifetimes of IT hardware than they currently do if only their clients ask for it.”

Joppe van Driel

Program Developer Circularity in Urban Regions

The power of sharing knowledge and education and building trust are clear: due to the pilot project that sketched out the environmental savings of using products for longer, a large participant plans to extend the amount of time that it uses laptops from the standard four years to six years. This will make a huge difference:

"For any company with 1,000 employees requiring 1,000 laptops, [extending the use time to six years] means that in 12 years, 2,000 laptops instead of 3,000 will be used. So, on average, the company would need 80 laptops less per year structurally, signifying less harmful production, CO2 emissions and toxic e-waste, for example," notes van Driel. This is just the beginning: contact us if you want your organization to reevaluate its IT policies!

2. Repair initiatives must also be bottom-up and be embraced by everyday people

As van Driel explained, everyday consumer goods were often produced and mended in or near the home in the not-so-distant past. But today, buying our goods with a few clicks online or from a shop's shelf has disconnected many people from said goods. If you don't know how to make something, repairing it seems out of reach. But there are ways to help people execute repair practices, as Mugge’s research has found. If the product clarifies to the user what is wrong, they are guided along in the repair process and are far more likely to engage in repair practices. Igniting a ‘can-do’ attitude to repair skills is vital (van den Berge, Magnier and Mugge, 2023).

Igniting this connection will be part of a brand new project that has just been awarded an NWO KIC grant, of which Greene of Wageningen University & Research is the principal investigator, and AMS Institute is a partner.

“Despite a strong willingness among Dutch citizens to engage in repairing activities, actual participation remains marginal. The ShaRepair project seeks to overcome these barriers by fostering trust, acceptance, and broader adoption of circular consumption practices through innovative social practice and life cycle environmental assessment approaches.”

Mary Greene, Assistant Professor in Sustainable and Circular Consumption at Wageningen University & Research

"By adopting a co-creative urban Living Lab approach, ShaRepair will co-design and experiment with product and service arrangements that support sharing and repairing practices in real-world settings, thereby forming new networks for learning and collaboration," explains Greene. This approach is essential for integrating circular practices in everyday life, including workplaces, neighborhoods, and community groups.

ShaRepair’s Living Labs represent a concerted effort to address pressing societal and environmental challenges through real-world experimentation and innovation:

  • Expanding the lifespan of IT: The ‘Circular IT and Cultures of Repair’ workplace Living Lab focuses on extending the lifespan of professional IT hardware through behavioral interventions and novel product-service combinations.
  • Create a city-wide network: The ‘Network of Urban Repair Services’ Living Lab aims to map and analyze current repair practices and services in Amsterdam, and co-create a city-wide repair service network. It'll design and test ways to boost the uptake and scaling of repair practices and services.
  • Scaling repair across all neighborhoods: The ‘Fostering Sharing in Diverse Neighborhoods’ Living Lab seeks to encourage sharing practices among diverse citizen groups across a range of socio-economically diverse neighborhoods.

Can-do consumers need to drive the revival of repair

Is the Netherlands on the brink of a repair revival? The answer may be no—not yet. The introduction of the Right to Repair legislation paves the way for a more repair-first society. But a top-down approach will not be sufficient alone: knowledge needs to be shared on the ground to give power back to decision-makers and everyday people to make choices that benefit the environment. With this knowledge, people can begin to take back power from companies that encourage us to buy more and more and return to having pride in their own ‘good housekeeping’. Yet it will also require fiscal shifts so that repair becomes cheaper and more competitive for individuals and businesses, as well as city administrators making the space necessary for accessible repair centers and repair skills becoming part of schooling, among other systemic shifts.

* To read more about barriers and possible avenues to overcome them, Mugge was a co-author of a detailed whitepaper, alongside ten scientists from Leiden University, TU Delft, Erasmus University Rotterdam and Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences: “Broader approach needed to integrate product repair”.

* Do you want to learn more about these projects from the researchers themselves? Attend the relevant sessions at the upcoming AMS Scientific Conference, April 23 – 25.

Sharing And Repairing In Everyday Urban Life: Bridging Science And Policy To Drive Circular Transformation with Dr. Joppe van Driel and Mary Greene

How to lower the footprint of IT using digital product passports: From research to practice with Dr. Anelia Kurteva of TU Delft

Explore the full program here:

Want to know more about the projects or looking to collaborate?