Repair cafes: The key to a more sustainable fashion industry
A silver bullet for our textile waste problem.
As fast fashion clogs up our landfills and the cost of living climbs, repairing clothes is back in vogue. Sustainability Trust’s Just Sew RepairED workshop lends a mending hand.
At the end of a secluded side street in the heart of Wellington is the home of Sustainability Trust. It’s an organisation that focuses on supporting people to reduce their impact on the environment.
It runs monthly workshops, or repair cafes, where people can come along with clothing that needs to be repaired. The trust’s team of volunteers helps people fix these items, either by guiding or showing how it’s done.
The sewing workshops are held on the first Saturday of every month, and it’s always a busy day at the trust. It turns out that lots of people want to learn how to repair.
With steaming mugs of coffee and tea provided by the trust, those who’ve brought in their ripped or damaged clothing are teamed up with a volunteer.
After talking about what they want fixed, they set to work together at one of the many sewing machines provided.
Ruby, an arts student, brought along a funky pair of tartan pants with a broken zip. She had a little sewing experience under her belt but didn’t feel confident repairing the zip on her own at home.
“I did a little bit in high school … I don’t have a machine any more though, and I tend to damage things more than fix them.”
Ruby said the lovely people volunteering who are good at sewing could help fill the gap in her knowledge and give her access to machinery. It wasn’t just a zip to fix; she also needed to alter a dress she'd bought from an op shop that was too big.
“As a general rule, I never buy anything new. I don’t like fast fashion and I’m a student, so I haven’t got a lot of money.”
Buying clothes from an op shop is a great way to get unique fashion at a fraction of the original price while also helping the planet, Ruby said. If things don’t fit properly, knowing some basic sewing skills can help you fix the problem.
It was ill-fitting clothing that prompted Lorraine to take part. She came to hem the sleeves of a zip-up polar fleece she’s had for 16 years. She wanted to learn to alter it instead of buying a new one.
“A lot of people would throw something like this out,” she said. But her jumper is made from polyester, a plastic-based fabric, so she “wanted to save it from the landfill”. A jumper like Lorraine’s could survive in the landfill for anywhere from 20 to 200 years.
In her younger years, Lorraine did night classes to learn how to sew. However, it had been a while since she’d practised and some techniques she’d never learned. After digging around for the right colour thread in a box overflowing with spools, Lorraine got on the machine and gave it a go.
“I’ve never worked with twin needles before, so it’s a bit tricky … but it was great to get somebody to help me.”
Niloy, a tech whiz, brought along a mountain of jeans to be repaired, all with the same issue. The denim where the thighs tend to rub was disintegrating, leaving large holes on either side. “It’s the classic problem.”
Aside from the holes, “the rest of the jeans are just fine – I don’t want to throw them away”.
He’s had his favourite pair for about six years and had taken them to a tailor to get them fixed. But as the jeans continued to wear, he had to set them aside.
Niloy knows the basics of sewing and said he was “a dab hand” back in school. Now, he lacks the confidence to fix the jeans himself. Short of sending them to his mother in Scotland, he went along to Sustainability Trust.
“It’s one thing to go along and get something repaired, but it’s another to learn the basics again, so that next time I’ve got to add another pair of jeans to the mountain, I won’t have to wait ages to get them fixed, or buy new,” he said.
The trust’s lead educator, Kim Tabrum, believes the workshops “promote the health and wealth of people and planet”. People, like Ruby, Lorraine and Niloy, are a big part of everything going on at the trust, she said. It's a space for people to share knowledge, learn and connect with others, no matter their background.
“The social aspect … after Covid-19, it’s one of the highlights.”
According to Kim, the sessions ensure that our possessions are used in meaningful ways for as long as possible. They also help individuals consume less, reduce carbon emissions and avoid waste.
Indeed, repair is one of the most effective ways of reducing our carbon emissions. Waste and Resources Action Plan UK (WRAP) is an NGO that operates around the world to tackle the causes of the climate crisis. It estimates that extending the life of your clothes by nine months could reduce carbon and water footprints by up to 30%.
All the sewing machines and an overlocker have been sourced by the trust secondhand. Some are donated and others are rescued from the landfill. Once they’ve been given a clean and a good service, the machines are as good as new.
Their materials are secondhand too. Fabrics come from donations and scraps from the trust’s Wellington Curtain Bank, while cottons, zips and buttons are donated too. It means the trust’s stockpile is overflowing with a variety of colours, textures and finishes for any repair need.
Sustainability Trust also runs a collaborative repair cafe with Hopper Refill, which focuses on repairing small electrical appliances (“toasters are the worst”, Kim said), as well as providing tech support and advising on general household repairs.
Repair cafes aren’t unique to Sustainability Trust, either. There are many repair cafes happening around the country, from Dunedin to Auckland. To find one in your area, go to repaircafeaotearoa.co.nz.
Mending our ways
The composition of waste in our landfills is rapidly changing. The Ministry for the Environment (MfE) estimates there are about 186,000 tonnes of textiles currently in NZ landfills. This number has been increasing since the mid-1990s. Before then, textile waste in New Zealand accounted for 0.5% of landfill mass. But in the past 25 years, it has ballooned to more than 5%.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) is another global charity focused on tackling the causes of climate change. EMF suggests the advent of fast fashion in the late 1990s is partly to blame, and it’s not hard to see why. Clothing is increasingly manufactured cheaply, from plastic-based materials like polyester, without any consideration for durability. Garments are easily worn out and as trends become obsolete, clothes become disposable. From the get-go, they’re destined for the landfill.
Cost is a barrier if you want to avoid the problem of fast fashion altogether. A quick look online shows a sustainably sourced and made cotton T-shirt could cost 12 times more than its fast-fashion counterpart (assuming you’re able to certify it’s actually sustainable).
Then there’s the infrastructure issue. With low-quality clothing dominating the fashion market and driving trend cycles, businesses are increasing production output. As the fashion industry grows, there isn’t a proportionate focus on the longevity of garments.
Taking responsibility, also known as product stewardship, is an emerging initiative, with regulators driving industry change. For example, France introduced a mandatory repairability index, which requires manufacturers of five types of electronic devices to front up to customers about how easy it is to repair their products. Labels on smartphones, televisions, laptops, washing machines, and lawnmowers allow French consumers to make more informed decisions about the products they’re buying.
But it's not a perfect solution. While both Australia and New Zealand have government-accredited product stewardship schemes, they’re mostly voluntary (with very few exceptions) and industry-wide coverage simply doesn’t exist. None of the New Zealand schemes involve textiles. Ultimately, this means the burden of repair rests on the consumer to figure it out.
The options are limited. There’s DIY and tailors, which can be expensive. If you can’t repair clothing yourself and you can’t take it to a tailor, you’re left with donating to charity shops and then disposing to landfills.
According to EMF, the consequences of unfettered textile waste could be “potentially catastrophic”.
Sick of wasting money on products you can’t repair?
Let’s put the pressure back on manufacturers to do better. Show them you want products you can repair and help us demand a mandatory repairability label.