Frustrated with the unsustainable growth of landfill and waste, Repair Cafe Wales was founded by Joe O’Mahoney and Cerys Jones in April 2017 to start and support repair cafes in Wales. They were inspired by the work being done in the Netherlands, which initiated the repair cafe movement since striving for sustainability on a local level since 2007.
Our first repair cafe popped up in the Cathays area of Cardiff in 2017 and was a huge success. So much so that we soon realised that people were travelling from miles away to bring their items to us to fix. That was counter-productive to our vision for a cleaner, greener world so we had to look into expanding very soon after so that people could access a repair cafe much closer to home.
With support from the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and the circular economy team at Welsh Government, we now have 50 repair cafes across Wales.
All the cafes receive support from a central team but each local organiser is responsible for setting up and running the cafe in their community. There are ‘fixers’ at each cafe who are not professionals necessarily, but are expert in repairing everything from clothes, electrical goods and bikes to jewellery, watches and antiques – and everything in between. Some are retired electricians or seamstresses while others are highly skilled and talented individuals who have been pottering in their garage or back bedroom for years and just know how to breathe a new lease of life into things that would otherwise be thrown away.
The fixers are supported by other volunteers at the cafes who manage the process and the paperwork for our visitors. The service is free and our data shows that in a typical year we fix about 60 to 70 per cent of items that come through our door. When we can’t fix them, we record why and if relevant, send information to the Right To Repair Movement - which challenges manufacturers on their making of goods that can’t be repaired.
Each cafe is very much a community-led organisation with many cogs in the wheel. The organisers who run them are always very well connected in the local community with a network who can help them maintain the service. We rely on them to keep their operations up and running and to connect with the wider community. We have found that as well as fixing things for people, the cafes also serve as a meeting point for local people and many frequently pop in to say hello and have a cup of tea.
The beauty of the work is more than just fixing a product too. We know that if we fix a bike for someone, they can continue to get to work. If we fix their laptop, we may well be helping them with essential learning. There are so many benefits to the work our fixers and their support teams do.
Looking back, we didn’t realise how quickly we would grow and how big the appetite was for repair cafes. We were inspired by the work in the Netherlands and that was our starting point which helped us with policies and protocols for our own operation. It was really important that we had this network and anyone else starting out should look for others who are doing complimentary work as like-minded organisation can help you short cut processes and solve problems.
As we grew, we also realised how important it was to capture data and we’ve improved massively in that respect. Good data helps us with everything from business planning to applying for funding and that is fundamental to our continued success. It’s also important to think about how you capture that data to make it easy for people. This is something we’re continually striving to improve not only for ourselves, but for our visitors too. It’s important that the process is easy for them so they aren’t put off by the admin required.
We also use data to record what we can’t fix which helps us and others lobby brands as part of the Right To Repair Movement. Our data is not just for us in that respect, it can also influence the bigger environmental picture which is what we are all about.
What we also learned early on is that you have to work with engaged communities. We soon realised that parachuting into an area and telling people that their community would benefit from a repair cafe was never going to work. We now let people come to us because they are interested – and then we help them put the idea into action.
Our organisers for each repair cafe are key to the success of it and so the will, want and passion needs to come from them – not just us. They are the ones who know which newsletter to advertise in locally and which Facebook groups to join and that knowledge is invaluable.
Understanding the level of resource that you will need on an ongoing basis is always a challenge for the third sector and needs constant attention. Our service is free and for us we are always chasing funding so that we can continue to provide a quality service while growing so rapidly.
I’d also say that partnership is crucial. You have to make sure that you are not re-inventing the wheel. There are so many organisations with a shared goal and vision. Wales is great in that respect – there’s so many fantastic organisations doing so many amazing things that there’s likely to be someone somewhere doing something similar.
We also estimate the amount of carbon emissions saved through repair, which would otherwise have been emitted in the production of replacement items.