Author: Sophie Unwin
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #152
I. The Vision
In a community centre in Edinburgh a man is bent over a model railway set. Look closely and the trains are all made with pieces of salvaged wood and chipboard, cut by hand and carefully painted. David, who looks very eccentric, wearing olive green clothes that are all patched together, tied by string, and hitched up by braces, is 59 and is highly intelligent. He also has Asperger’s syndrome. Speak to him and you will have something which does not really resemble a conversation. “Remind me your name,” he asks me, and when I say Sophie he says, “Ah, yes, Princess Sofia from Austria…as you will remember,” before launching into a long historical monologue. When I stop him to point out that I am not, in fact, a princess, he is movingly self-aware. “It’s Asperger’s, you know.”
Like the rest of us in the room David does not come to the centre to be “helped”—he comes to volunteer to repair things and share his skills. Our main activities are sewing and mending clothes and patchwork quilt-making with leftover scraps of material, and basic computer repair, to help people clean out the viruses from their laptops and stop them throwing them out and buying new—but we are open to all ideas. David has expressed enthusiasm about the idea of running workshops for adults to make model railways with scrap wood and plastic. In the first weeks that he came, I was concerned that he needed quite so much attention, with our energy and time very limited. But I knew that the project could succeed only if it kept to its conviction that everyone is welcome and everyone has something to offer. And with the support and encouragement of the whole group, David has relaxed visibly and is a wonderful addition to the project. He is now happy spending much of the two hours that we meet on his own in purposeful activities, often with an audience attentive to his unparalleled command of historical and geographical facts. “Listening to David,” says Benny, our lovely German computer repair volunteer, “is like turning on the radio.”
Edgar Cahn, the founder of an idea called “Time Banking,” in which people swap skills with everyone’s time being counted as having equal value, has coined the phrase “no more throwaway people.” We hold this idea close to our hearts in our project “Remade in Edinburgh,” which is about trying to change the culture of “throwaway” in its widest sense. After all, where is this “away” where things, or people, can be thrown?
The economics of it brings the issue into focus: figures vary but for every tonne of waste, there is one job in disposing of it at landfill, but ten jobs for recycling it. With reuse and repair, the amount of jobs increases further—so while the burden on the planet is decreasing, people’s opportunities are growing.
Remade in Edinburgh is inspired by a similar project in Brixton, South London, called Remade in Brixton. I used to live in London and had been involved in setting up the project there. The idea was quite simple—to create a community centre where things could be reused and repaired rather than throwing them away. When things aren’t made to last, or in fact are made deliberately not to last, it’s often both cheaper and easier to throw things away rather than repair them. This “built-in obsolescence” is the norm of most electrical consumer goods, and is explained simply in a series of engaging films found at North American campaigner Annie Dillard’s website The Story of Stuff (www.thestoryofstuff.com).
In our centre, we said, we would not need to pay other people to fix things for us; we would learn how to fix them ourselves, and learn the kind of skills we would find useful when the oil runs out. Our philosophy was not just common-sense, it was underpinned by a strong tradition of social activism around community equality and empowerment as reflected in the writings of Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire. For Freire, education is a radical journey towards social justice:
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
II. Learning from Brixton
The Brixton project started up as part of the Transition Town group, a global grassroots movement motivated by the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change. We started the Remade project as a waste group. Hannah, who had trained in product design, was already using the name “Remade” for her work, and we decided to merge the two groups to try to work together to promote a culture of zero waste in Brixton. After all, when things aren’t thrown into holes in the ground, we have to start thinking about other uses for them—and the possibilities are almost endless. One thing that happens a lot in an urban centre with a fairly transient population and a lot of gentrification like Brixton is a huge pace of house-building and renovation. Because of a lack of storage space, things are thrown into skips (big containers outside houses) and rapidly disposed of. Often this means that good quality timber and other construction materials go to the dump.
Brixton is also known for its poverty, its strong racial mix, and has a huge amount of energy and life. Go to the market and you’ll find Chinese, Portuguese, Jamaican, Ethiopian stalls all side by side: rows of chicken feet, huge scaley pink fish with bulging eyes, okra, aubergine and plantain, make-up and wigs and accessories for afro-caribbean hair nestled next to outlets selling cheap mobile phones, watches, and clothes.
We started the project in October 2008. The recession was just starting to bite and people were losing their jobs and waking up to the holes in the financial system. A senior official in the Council was backing the transition vision and we held an open meeting in the town hall called “The Great Unleashing.” We launched a local currency, “The Brixton Pound”—where money stays in Brixton. The hall was full to capacity, with several hundred people there; some had to be turned away. People from the different projects—the Brixton pound, a food growing project called “Abundance” where people grow food on the waste land of urban estates and help pick fruit from trees that is going to waste, an affordable home insulation programme—all presented, and I also stood up for a few minutes to outline the Remade vision. “Imagine,” I said, “if elderly refugees could teach unemployed bankers useful skills like cooking or sewing or repairing furniture.” We got a round of laughter, and applause.
After this meeting, many more people got involved. An email group called “Project Dirt” started up a discussion about all the pumpkins that get thrown away during Hallowe’en. They sent out recipe cards for stews and pies and distributed them and persuaded supermarkets to distribute them so people would cook the food instead of throwing it away after carving out faces. Another group of people started to meet with the local council, asking them what its plans were to move beyond recycling to reuse and repair. From this grew a practical project to map and create a directory of all the local businesses offering repair services, to be uploaded onto the transition website.
Eventually, the collective “honeymoon” ended, and a new phase set in. Difficulties arose, and it sometimes seemed like two steps forward and one step back, as organizers faced the realities of a project run almost entirely on the spare time of enthusiastic volunteers, energized by the potential of the idea but confronting not only the obstructions of local bureaucracy and commercial realities but their own limitations.
At one point I remember a meeting in a local pub. The group was open to all, decisions made by consensus, and there was no agenda or time-keeping. Each time a new person came to join the discussion the conversation started at square one, rehashing old ground. “Why don’t we ban plastic bags in Brixton,” said one woman, an idea that many had previously voiced, but that was not going to materially progress our centre. We left over three hours later, having agreed nothing.
But then—a breakthrough. Hannah, who had built up an excellent network of good relationships with local makers and politicians, heard of an opportunity to take on a shop front in a little arcade at the heart of the market, rent-free for a year. It was a tiny space, but would be a visible site for the project, a place people could drop in and chat and share ideas. Outside the shop was a blackboard chalked up with “wants” and “offers,” and inside Hannah found an array of recycled crafts to display for sale, from belts made with old bicycle inner tubes to bags made from old jeans. Hannah also started organizing workshops and courses in making things to attract people to the shop. One day I helped out for the day and did a simple survey to find out what people wanted to learn. The overwhelming response was a demand for sewing classes, and this came from women and men, workers, students, and unemployed people, of all ages and different ethnicities.
Having the shop opened for six months helped get people involved; the relationships in the community were also strengthened. One woman, Sue Sheehan, was employed as a community champion officer in the local council and through this and other connections the project came to a point where it was offered a set of disused garage spaces by the council. Each one could house a different reuse and repair social enterprise.
III. Remade in Edinburgh
By this time I had moved up to Edinburgh in Scotland—a long-held dream—for a new job. I was keeping in touch with the project through phone calls and emails. It was more and more difficult.
Edinburgh had been a city that had always beguiled me. It’s a city whose edges—unlike those of London—are visible, giving way to the green hinterland of the arable farmland surrounding it. In the long spring days I go walking, a coconut-like scent in the air from the gorse bushes, bright yellow against the purple of the heather, through woods of silver birch and rowan and pine, and the sound of a cuckoo, and later a nightingale. The bus journey from town is only an hour; in London it would have taken me that time just to get to the bus station.
And Edinburgh is also a city whose seven hills, including an extinct volcano, mean that the countryside never feels far away. It is easier to have a connection with your environment if you can see more clearly where things come from and where they go. And, because we are our own environment, it follows that it is easier to have a connection with yourself.
My love of this place has kept me here; though two jobs and one relationship have come and gone, through all this change I have kept being able to find new ground.
I have done work to earn a living, and I have also sought out work that I enjoyed. I am most happy when I am using my skills to do something useful, working with others and helping others to reach their potential. It sounds simple but is not always easy in practice. So many jobs are deadening to the soul and have no intrinsic value. Who do you know who wants to do a job they don’t believe in? But I also reject the philosophy of competing for those jobs that are the most interesting—the idea that being creative is the privilege of the few. It is when people come together to do something worthwhile, all supporting each other in the process, that we start to find a right livelihood.
Sometimes I would idly imagine the idea of starting up a Remade project in Edinburgh—Remade in Edinburgh. But it seemed like far too difficult an undertaking and not sensible on my own, and I kept on putting the idea aside.
In summer 2010 I got an email from someone called Adam, put in touch with me by Hannah in London. “My name is Adam,” he wrote, “and I want to set up a reuse centre like the project in Brixton.”
For the next few months Adam and I worked together in a tide of excitement, writing funding applications and linking up with the transition town group in South Edinburgh. But this process was also not straightforward. After his initial burst of enthusiasm, Adam decided he would go traveling with his girlfriend for up to a year. We had very different working styles and at times clashed over how to proceed—I wanted to think things through, and Adam was keen to do things more quickly. By Christmas it looked like the project might falter altogether, as we still had no funding to proceed. And then, in one quite heated exchange, we both realised that what we wanted was to get a wider group of people involved, to take things forward.
What followed was initially amazing. In January this year we put out a message about a public meeting for the project. “Interested in getting involved in our vision for a reuse and repair centre in Edinburgh?” read the invitation. Thirty-five people came. By chance, a visiting professor, Paul Connett, had been in town to talk about zero waste as part of a Scottish campaign against incineration, and at the talk he’d shown examples of successful reuse and repair centres around the world. They work best, apparently, when a small project is based in a central area of town, linking to a bigger storage facility on the outskirts, where space is cheaper. In one example, an Italian project, we saw endless vats of liquids from olive oil to household detergent, being dispensed into people’s refillable containers. I spoke at Professor Connett’s talk and some other community events and almost everyone I spoke to was interested in getting involved. Nancy Somerville, the director of a neighbouring community centre, offered us a large hall rent-free while we got the project up and running.
By March we had over 100 members, and now, in June, almost 200. Each time we talk to people about the idea for the project it gets an excellent response. One of the most popular activities we run is the computer repair and upgrades—we offer really simple software checks and sometimes it takes as little as a virus check and clean-up to prevent someone throwing away their laptop and buying new. If you go to a commercial outlet for computer repair the cost of the two things can be almost the same. The laptop that I am currently typing at is a good example. I took it to a shop where I was quoted a minimum £100 charge to repair it, where buying a new one would be £300. We’re conditioned to think we have to upgrade our home equipment every couple of years—but it’s simply not true. In 20 minutes at our repair session, Benny has got my computer working well.
The clothes mending is also popular, and we’ve secured a supply of free secondhand clothes from a neighbouring charity shop so our team of volunteer sewers can help tailor them to size and show people how to get a sewing machine running. Meanwhile, other people sew scraps of leftover fabric into a large collective patchwork quilt.
This seems to be the time for the project, with a resurgence of interest in the skills which many people used to take for granted in mending and repairing things. We’ve moved away from this culture in an age of cheaply manufactured goods that aren’t made to last. We hope to move back to it, not by blaming people for being wasteful, but by offering them new opportunities to behave differently.
The biggest challenge, and also the biggest success, of the project, has been in converting an idea into an organization, and building a network of people who are really taking on responsibility for different roles. We are all volunteers, but volunteers need to be supported and motivated, given direction, and this has so far mainly fallen to me. And so I have had to learn to let go a bit in order to let others step forward, whilst still keeping a gentle hold of the reins and continuing to look out for new opportunities.
There have been several setbacks—we did not receive a large funding bid in April and have had to struggle on with no money. In some ways I think this has been good for us, as it’s meant thinking about creating an organization that is self-sufficient from the very start. Now, we are looking to keep our drop-in sessions with computer repair and quilt-making free, but to add workshops on particular skill areas—from furniture restoration to upholstery—that would pay their own way. We also hope to run a house-clearance and decluttering service where we will give advice on reusing and repairng broken household objects.
IV. Right Livelihood and Community
Each time I start a conversation with someone about the project, it builds my own commitment and enthusiasm. There is so much desire for opportunities to learn the skills that too often we have lost, and that would mean we could truly move away from a disposable culture to one where we really treasure the things we own. There are many other reuse projects in Edinburgh, from a woodwork project to a tool library and a craft store—and thinking about how we can work together with them and share resources, such as rent for a centre, has been exciting and energizing. And this, above all, is not just about saving things from landfill, it is about finding new ways we can interact with each other, through cooperation and sharing.
As I was thinking about the project one day, wondering how to explain the connection between right livelihood and community that seems central to its appeal, I came across a magazine from the Edinburgh Buddhist Centre. It described right livelihood as “an ethical approach to work—viewing work in the light of the five Buddhist precepts: developing friendliness, honesty, skilful sexual ethics, truthful speech, and mindfulness.”
For too many people, I believe that daily work involves a mismatch between the values of the organizations they work for and their own personal ethics. For others, the reaction of working for large and faceless corporates is to try and reclaim control by becoming self-employed or freelance, freeing up their time for leisure activities. I have done both, and neither has satisfied me.
In contrast, working for community you can see the impact of your actions, and can be supported by the people around you. Your colleagues are your neighbours. I do think this means we are more friendly to each other but of course there are times when there are clashes and the only way to survive these is to really work together to resolve them.
With Remade in Edinburgh the community has helped shape a sound business proposition too: we have a local market in the supply of broken goods and a demand for the repaired ones amongst our members, and a local pool of participants for our courses. If we can grow this local market we will be helping reduce the need to manufacture things far away and transport them here, and we will become more self-reliant in the process.
Turning all of this into reality continues to be hard work, and often a very challenging journey, but I persevere in the deep belief that it is my own right livelihood.