We want to repair our assets. Why don’t our governments do the same?
PSST. Elizabeth? John? Andrew? Got an idea. You’ve heard of hygge, that Danish word for “contented cozyness” that’s become a lifestyle, spurring the sales of hand-knitted socks and wooden furniture. Well, there’s another concept from northern Europe that’s far more important, and it’s just waiting for someone to brand it.
Last January, Sweden implemented a series of tax reductions for repairing household goods. They cut sales tax in half (from 25 to 12 percent) on repairs to shoes, clothes, and bicycles. For repairs to appliances like refrigerators and dishwashers, Swedes can now deduct half the labour cost from their income taxes.
“We don’t anticipate that this will make people avoid buying things overall, but hopefully it will be easier for people to buy high-quality products because they know it’s affordable to have them fixed if something breaks,” explained Deputy Finance Minister Per Bolund, just before the changes were introduced. “So it’s a lessened incentive to buy as cheap as possible and then scrap something.”
Bolund, a biologist by training, said part of the government’s motivation was environmental, to nudge Swedes away from disposable consumerism. But it was also economic: “Repairs are more labour-intense than production, which has been largely automized, so expanding repairs could actually contribute to an expanding labour market and a decrease in unemployment. Especially because repair services often require high skills but not very high education, so we believe there’s a currently unemployed part of the labour force that could benefit.
“Of course it is [also] a boost for the local labour market because repairs are by their nature done near where you live,” Boland continued. “So hopefully this will contribute to the growth of jobs locally all over the country. Whereas large-scale manufacturing is very centralized and can only happen in a few locations around the nation and internationally.”
Smart, right? Swedes call this shift a skattereduktion på reparation. Not catchy. We can do better. Like BC’s revenue-neutral carbon tax — another measure Europeans created, and for which we earned acclaim by being the first to implement in North America — a repair incentive, a fixcentive, could do a world of good.
Citizens across the planet are struggling to transform our linear, take-make-dispose economy into one that’s “circular”, keeping limited resources in use for as long as possible. In some places, they’re doing it with consumer-protection laws. In France, activists are suing four computer-printer manufacturers, claiming their products are designed to stop working after a pre-set number of pages—a crime of planned obsolescence, punishable by two years’ imprisonment and a fine of €300,000 under a new French statute. In several US states, the Open Repair Alliance is pushing new “right to repair” legislation, requiring companies to make products that can be opened and fixed by independent shops, instead of expensive dealer networks. (So far they’ve succeeded with automobiles, but not with electronic devices like smartphones, which the companies claim would violate owners’ privacy.)
Sweden is taking a different tack, by simply making repair more attractive. Swedes seem to be on board: 100 kilometres west of Stockholm, there’s a municipal recycling centre with classrooms, workshops, and a 14-store mall that sells toys, clothes, furniture and electronics that its students have repaired. The project has created 50 new jobs.
Victorians figure out a blender at a recent repair café. (Photo by Gayle Bates)
A FIXCENTIVE WOULD PROBABLY WIN FAVOUR IN VICTORIA TOO, judging by the local popularity of “repair cafés” — by-donation events where volunteers fix broken items that folks have carried in, from sweaters to toasters to chainsaws.
“The demand is definitely here; the only limiting factor is the number of fixers we have,” says Michelle Mulder, who co-founded the downtown Victoria café in 2015. (Repair cafés started in Amsterdam in 2009.) She’s seen hundreds of objects revived at the bimonthly cafés, and there’s often lineups, especially for electrical items, which many people are afraid of tackling themselves.
“Everybody once knew how to repair things, or knew someone who did,” Mulder notes. “But those skills are falling by the wayside, because it’s so easy, and often cheaper, to replace things.” Consequently, part of the café’s mandate is educational: The volunteer fixers don’t just take broken objects away and repair them, they show the owner and other volunteers the process, so more people have the skills. “We encourage people to bring in toys, because usually kids come along with them,” Mulder says, “and the more kids we have learning how to repair things, the more we can change the way society works.” (The next café is on Saturday, November 25, 9:30-12:30 at the central library. For more dates, see http://repaircafevicbc.ca.)
Unfortunately, kids can’t look to Victoria’s elected officials to provide similar good examples. As Focus readers know, City Hall ignored 2008 estimates that the durable old Johnson Street Bridge could’ve been repaired for $8.6 million, and bought the promises of a mechanically unique “100-year” replacement that’s $105 million and counting. As the project nears completion, practically everyone is wondering how long it will be before some unforeseen problem appears, and whether we can rely on the bridge’s extended two-year warranty to correct it — or if we’ll be left out in the cold like the customers of Sears Canada.
But recent events suggest that, despite all the difficulties with the new machine they’re building Victoria councillors still aren’t very curious about how it works or will be repaired. At his October 19 update, project director Jonathan Huggett passed around a hardened sample of the thousands of litres of epoxy grout that’s filling the cavities of the toothed rack of the bridge’s “wheels,” and assured them the grout would last longer than the bridge itself; none of the councillors asked how it would be possible to inspect or replace the parts sealed inside the grout. Huggett advised that City staff are acquiring parts and equipment for future maintenance of the bridge; nobody asked what was needed, or how much it would cost.
A similar failure to ask hard questions is leading to the replacement of Crystal Pool. Councillors claim the 1971-built pool is at “the end of its life” and can’t be repaired — even though in 2004 both Esquimalt and Oak Bay successfully refurbished their pools of similar vintage, built in 1974 and 1975 respectively. The mayor claims a new Crystal Pool will have “low carbon emissions,” but hundreds of tonnes of greenhouse gases will be produced making all the concrete for it, and even a new 50-metre pool needs a lot of energy to heat all that water. (Besides, Victoria hasn’t done much over the decades to improve the old pool energy-wise — again, compared to Oak Bay, which has won climate-action awards for the continual improvements to its pool, including its rooftop solar panels, there since 1985.) At least the old bridge’s steel will be recycled; the old pool, if replaced, will end up as landfill.
Nevertheless, the City is commissioning designs, with plans to start construction in mid-2018, even though it doesn’t know where most of the $69-million budget will come from. The new federal infrastructure program has earmarked $157 million for community centres, including pools, across British Columbia — but the money will be allocated on a per-capita basis. So the 80,000-resident City of Victoria will probably only get about $2.7 million in federal cash for the project, and a couple of million more in provincial and gas-tax funds. It will have to hold a referendum to borrow the rest.
Victoria’s councillors should instead tell their staff that they can’t countenance such waste, and won’t ask residents to pay some $50 million to replace a 46-year-old facility, especially when the City has repeatedly balked at spending even small fractions of that to refurbish it. If Council won’t change the costly neglect-and-replace culture at City Hall, voters could be making some fixes to it in next November’s civic election.
Ross Crockford wrote this on a 2011 Macbook, likely to be rendered obsolete by Apple’s next operating-system upgrade.