State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Green Friday: How to Balance Shopping and Sustainability

Shopping can be a fraught experience for many of us. Everyone likes new clothes and furniture and gadgets that make our lives more comfortable, yet we know that each new item we buy leaves a scar on the planet. Sandra Goldmark’s book, Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet, provides a helpful and entertaining guide for navigating these conflicts.

fixation book cover
Published in September, Fixation explores our broken relationship to “stuff” and how to fix it.

Goldmark is the director of Campus Sustainability and Climate Action at Barnard College, where she also teaches theater. In her previous work as a set designer, she got plenty of practice in repairing and repurposing prop pieces — experience that eventually led to her to found Fixup, which operates temporary, pop-up repair shops throughout New York City. The book is full of quirky anecdotes about broken items that she and her teammates have encountered in the pop-ups. It’s also a commentary on the broken relationship that we have with the things we buy.

Most of today’s products go on a one-way trip from the factory to our homes and then the landfill. Goldmark’s book helps us to envision a circular economy where repair and refurbishing help to give an item many lives.

Developing a circular economy is not just about conserving Earth’s limited resources and reducing waste; it’s also an important part of confronting climate change. The production of cars, clothes, food, and other products is responsible for 45% of humankind’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “These cannot be overlooked,” the report notes. “The circular economy can contribute to completing the picture of emissions reduction by transforming the way we make and use products.”

While the book dives deep into the challenges and opportunities of creating a more circular economy, the overall takeaway message is simple: “Have good stuff (not too much), mostly reclaimed. Care for it. Pass it on.”

Below is an excerpt from the book, which includes a discussion of what “good” stuff is, and how we can fix this broken system that leads to the production of so much bad stuff.

Excerpt from Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet, by Sandra Goldmark

One December, Claire G. brought us her little stuffed reindeer to fix. He was about nine inches tall to the top of his antlers, had a light-up nose, and he was supposed to move his legs and make music. (I bet you can guess the song.) The reindeer had seen many Christmases in Claire’s house, and she was quite fond of him. She brought him to one of our holiday pop-ups, and in the spirit of the season, we really wanted to fix him for her at a reasonable price. But when we opened the little guy up and found a cracked plastic gear, we groaned.

Inside Claire’s reindeer’s stuffed chest cavity, a set of plastic gears connected to a small motor. One of these gears was split and couldn’t grab the neighboring cog, so the deer’s legs didn’t move. We groaned when we discovered this because plastic is, very simply, a pain in the butt to fix. It’s hard to glue, and once compromised—cracked, scratched, nicked—it’s very hard to do anything useful with it at all. If you’ve got a plastic finish on something, you can, maybe, paint it or touch it up. But when plastic is used on component parts that take any stress, especially moving parts, it can mean that one small break makes the entire object useless.

sandra goldmark with reindeer and christmas tree
Goldmark poses with the reindeer with a plastic heart. Although it’s cute, the reindeer is a good example of a “monstrous hybrid” — an item that is hard to fix and cannot easily be broken down into its component parts for reuse or to biodegrade. Photo courtesy Sandra Goldmark

Now, perhaps you don’t consider stuffed reindeers to be items of the highest utility—that’s okay, it was Claire’s and she loved it. But there are lots of other items that have this problem, and we confronted them over and over again in our repair shops. In fact, one of the items that launched our whole repair shop endeavor was what I call a “fake nice” desk lamp. I purchased it (I think) at a Kmart years ago. It’s brushed silver in color, and it resembles a high-quality swivel neck desk lamp. But it had a plastic part right in the swiveling part of the neck—exactly where all the stress was concentrated, the point with the largest range of motion. Not surprisingly, the lamp broke right at that plastic piece, and the head now dangles grotesquely from the arm. It’s difficult to take this part out, even if you could find or make a replacement, because it is riveted in place, not screwed. This is why I call the lamp “fake nice.” It looked good, but it was designed to fail, because of the choice of materials and the near impossibility of replacing its parts.

You might ask, why not glue the little reindeer cog? Or, couldn’t a well-placed screw have saved the lamp? Well, not usually. We have used countless different types of glue on plastic, as well as fillers, heat treatments, epoxies, acrylics, resins. Some of them work, especially if you are just building up a little missing piece or filling a crack—something decorative. But when you put a plastic piece under the stress of motion and pressure, glue does not cut it. It crumbles, it gets brittle and breaks, and most important, it doesn’t bond. It is sometimes possible to find adhesives that will work with a particular plastic. For example, we have used glue to reattach metal legs to a molded plastic 1960s style chair; the manufacturer kindly provided a repair kit with the correct adhesive and parts. But the vast majority of manufacturers don’t supply handy kits with their plastic products, and the number of different plastics and glues out there is mind-boggling.

Now, you might say that there are lots of high-tech ways to solve these problems—and for some of them there are. We could, for example, have 3D-printed a new part for the reindeer’s heart. But our aim was to provide our customers with convenient, quality, affordable repairs: we needed to be able to diagnose and fix each item quickly and easily. The amount of time it would take to scan the old part, adjust the drawing as needed, and print the new part would make the cost prohibitive.

Plastic looks good new, and it’s relatively easy to clean—up to a point. Once the finish is compromised, however, it is much harder to renew than other materials. Wood, for example, can be sanded, filled, stained, waxed, sealed, or painted. Metal can be repainted, or brushed—although it’s true that once dented it’s not easy to un-dent. Textiles can be darned, overdyed, stitched, or patched. Plastic can’t take most of these techniques; it doesn’t even take paint easily.

Of the roughly 2,500 items we fixed over the years, we had a repair success rate of about 85 percent. Of the 15 percent “repair fails,” nearly 70 percent involved either poor material choices (usually plastic), the nonavailability of parts, or both.

We often think of the problems with plastics as a question of single-use items—water bottles and grocery bags and picnic forks. These items are designed to be used once, and discarded, and the problems inherent in this system are enormous. But my journey into the entrails of Claire’s reindeer, plus the hundreds of other little plastic parts we’ve fought with over the past six years, has taught me that plastic components make many nonplastic objects disposable. The basic design of the reindeer— and my lamp, and many of the thousands of objects in our database— are fundamentally compromised by the incorporation of plastic into designs in a way it should never have been used.

That’s why we groaned when we saw Claire’s little reindeer’s broken plastic cog during his open-heart surgery. We knew that we were up against a tough fix. We did manage to epoxy the gear. I even did a tiny little splice—I epoxied a tiny piece of metal across the crack, to create a sort of a splint. We managed to get the patched gear into the reindeer. We restuffed him and stitched him up, and we laughed and maybe even cried a little bit when he danced and sang: a little Christmas miracle. Though, to be honest, I must admit that I am not sure how long his new heart will last.

I understand that plastic is part of our world today, and sometimes it can be an amazing, and amazingly useful, material. But it is also a problem, especially when it compromises the integrity of a much larger object. In Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart use the term “monstrous hybrid” to describe objects like the reindeer or my “fake nice” lamp—things where poor material choices for one component or part can compromise an entire object. Monstrous hybrids are items that, in addition to often being hard to fix, cannot be broken down into their component parts for reuse or to biodegrade and feed another “biological nutrient” cycle.

Plastic on its own isn’t the only problem. And “green” or “renewable” materials aren’t the only solution. It’s a question of considering the full life cycle of the lamp or the reindeer. In the longer term, that means designing objects in such a way and with materials that can be reclaimed. In the shorter term, it means making it possible, and even easy, to fix them.

The uncomfortable truth is that quality, repairable, well-designed, and good stuff is often more expensive. Underlying this are two harsh realities: the companies who design and manufacture our stuff are not paying the full price of the environmental harms they may be causing; and the people who actually make our stuff with their hands are not being paid nearly enough. So, new stuff is often cheap, but good new stuff is generally speaking, not. How do we get manufacturers—and consumers—to pay the true cost of their goods?

person fixing wooden furniture with a mallet
Goldmark defines “good” stuff as items that are well-designed, durable, and repairable. Wooden furniture, for example, can be repaired, refinished, and repurposed, and thus can live many lives before becoming trash. Photo: Ademire Da Costa

A designer might be convinced, purely on the merits of the resulting product, to adopt a cradle-to-cradle approach. But most companies are still consistently tempted to cut costs by searching for a place to make the product at the lowest possible hourly wage, with the cheapest possible parts.

The only way out of this pattern seems to be national and international standards, especially for labor. Some pessimists argue that these types of standards are impossible. Nations exist around the world with large populations that are hungry for work, and global corporations exist around the world with the capacity and desire to make lots of stuff. How could we prevent the manufacturing jobs from going to the lowest bidder? Well, we have laws in the United States that prevent food that is rotten or unhealthy from being sold or served. Why should we sell stuff that is made by people working in rotten or unhealthy conditions, or that does not meet certain basic quality standards?

Currently, international labor standards are complex, and generally patchy and poorly enforced, and the result can be seen in many of the things we buy and use. Every day in our shops, we were physically cognizant of the work that went into making every item we fixed, and the person far away who made them. We were squeezed for time on each repair, trying to match an impossibly low hourly wage overseas while trying to pay our fixers enough to make rent here in New York. The fact of the matter is that until people all over the world are paid more fairly, it will be very hard to pay your rent in the United States by fixing things.

While this problem can feel impossibly huge, it is possible to take action on many levels. We can advocate for treaties and international standards that protect workers around the world. We can advocate for local incentives that make repair more financially feasible. In 2017, Sweden instituted a significant tax break for repair providers, which would cut the cost of repairs for items like shoes, clothing, and bicycles. If New York State did something like this—or even just exempted repair providers from the 8 percent state sales tax—our shops’ extremely slim profit margins would have doubled at least.

And while we fight for smart policies, we can also start changing the way we shop, right now. It can be daunting to try to find ethically produced products, but we have some experience to draw from. We’re used to wading through potentially misleading labels on food and beauty products: products vaguely called “green” or “natural” are often far from good. It’s becoming similarly confusing in terms of labor standards and ethical production of our durable goods as well. Some labels come from reputable third-party organizations; Fair Trade USA, for example, works with third-party auditors to implement regular, detailed evaluations of supply chain actors for thousands of brands. Some are more nebulous, from “voluntary membership” organizations that are funded by the companies they rate. Nonetheless, if you can find certification from third parties, it’s one way to at least begin to identify responsible corporate actors for social and environmental impact.

Finding good new products can take a little time; from figuring out where the item was made and by whom to figuring out whether the materials are good quality, and finally, if it was designed to last and be fixed if needed. Finding goods with these characteristics also usually means spending a little more. For this reason, from a personal standpoint, it’s worth making buying new stuff a rare experience. And from an environmental and social perspective, rare and more expensive is also a good thing. This probably means buying less, and less often, which may mean in turn that you can spend more when you do buy. Truly good stuff is a wonderful thing, and something we can all appreciate—once in a while. Luckily for all of us, there are good alternatives to new stuff all around us, if we could just find them in all the clutter.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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3 years ago

This article made my heart sing, not only because of the touching reindeer example, but because now I don’t feel alone as someone who insists on repairing everything. I have had numerous “inner plastic part” failures; right now I can recall frustrating attempts at repairing a kitchen timer, a toaster oven, strings of holiday lights, and kids’ toys. I have been best able to repair objects that do not include crucial plastic parts: a lamp, my clothes dryer, and old doorknob… and I gave my broken bicycle to a friend who took it to a repair shop and the result was great.

You have renewed my belief in repairing and, if buy I must, try to stay with repairable products even if they are more expensive!