State of the Planet

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Fixing Our Broken Relationship with ‘Stuff’: A Q&A With Sandra Goldmark

Sandra Goldmark is a triple-, or possibly quadruple-threat, but not in the conventional song and dance way. She is director of Campus Sustainability at Barnard College, and also a theater professor, set designer, and repair shop proprietor. Oh, and an author; Goldmark’s book Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet is a short but substantive and enjoyable dive into the relationship between humans and “stuff,” based on her own sustainability journey and passion for repair.

I first met Goldmark in 2014 at the Columbia Greenmarket, which I was managing at the time. She and her husband Michael, both seasoned theater professionals accustomed to fixing things at work, periodically brought their pop-up repair shop to the farmers market at 114th and Broadway, staying for three or four weeks at a time. They would spread the word that they were there for a week and then the next week they’d collect a stream of broken items from the community. A couple of weeks later, they’d bring them back fixed.

Goldmark’s experience with the repair shop made a lasting impression on her. She discovered that it’s not just less wasteful to repair things; it also makes people feel good. Most of the people she interacted with at the shop weren’t getting items repaired because they wanted to be eco-friendly; they were doing it because of their attachment to the item. They didn’t want to replace it—they wanted that particular thing to work again.

In Fixation, Goldmark outlines how stuff is a really essential part of who we are as humans; we couldn’t survive without it, and it also gives us pleasure. She delves deep into our very troubled relationship to stuff and our insatiable appetite for it, and the consequences these have had for our planet. You can read an excerpt here.

I caught up with her to ask her some questions on our podcast, Pod of the Planet, and you can read a condensed version of our conversation below. We’ve also put together a list of recommendations of shops and organizations that can help you on your journey to a more sustainable lifestyle at the end of the interview.

repair popup at Greenmarket
Sandra (sitting center) and her Fixit pop-up colleagues at a New York City Greenmarket.

You started as a set designer and professor for the Barnard College theater department. How did you come to your current position as director of Campus Sustainability?

As a set designer for many years, my job was to work with stuff to create meaning on stage with space and the objects in it. Another big part of the job of a set designer, unfortunately, is creating a lot of waste. Almost every design that you make goes, sooner or later, into the Dumpster.

My work in theater led me down this path of thinking about questions of consumption, of waste, and their roles in climate change, and eventually of circularity as a solution. Somewhere over the past 10 to 12 years, I got really fired up about that and I came up with circular economy solutions for our theater practices. I started the repair shops, which were a kind of like a real-world example of the same thing.

All of that ultimately fed back into this work of thinking about climate action on campus. Having worked across these disciplines for so many years, it made me feel very strongly that it’s good to have people working on these things from all different departments and perspectives. That has really fed into my work at Barnard. We’re looking at climate action from as many angles as we can, with as many people in the room as we can.

Can you talk a little more about the repair shop? Do you have a favorite repair from your time in the repair shop, or one that is particularly memorable?

My husband and I and our colleagues started running these little short-term repair shops all over New York City, and we called ourselves Fixit. People would bring us all kinds of broken items. We accepted everything from lamps and appliances and furniture to toys and textiles and ceramics. As you mentioned, there were a lot of really specific objects. Twenty-five hundred of them, to be exact, that came through our shops.

It was an experiment into this question of whether people would pay for these services. How much would they pay? How could we tinker and disrupt the traditional business model of repair to make it sustainable and viable in New York, a very expensive city?

people fixing things in a workshop
The Fixit workshop.

We ran these short-term shops for seven years. We did more than a dozen shops and dozens of educational events. It was funny because on the one hand, there did come to be a pattern, a repetitiousness of another lamp, another broken blender. But in another funny way, every little object was unique and told a story.

I really loved the paint touchups. Within set design, I really quite love scenic painting, so I love touching up things like ceramics or wood stains or jewelry. I remember one item, it was a yellow kid’s stool with a painting of a tiger on the top. We fixed the leg, but then the paint was all chipped, so I touched up the top.

Those jobs were really satisfying. First of all, it’s very soothing for me. It’s a hard job that for me is easy, which is always fun. There’s something really satisfying about like the kind of invisibility of the mend when you’re done. Some people in the repair world love visible mending, which can be very cool and very beautiful, but I think my theater illusionist heart really loves it when you hold up the bowl and the crack is completely camouflaged.

In your book you discuss a broad range of topics from sustainable agriculture, to set design, to furniture production, to waste cycles, to world religions. Can you talk a bit about the common threads running through the book? What ties it all together?

I guess the obvious common thread is “stuff’ or consumption, whichever term you prefer. The reason I have so many threads is I really felt like after all these years in the repair shop, we needed to look at stuff as the incredibly complex and rich topic that it is. You can talk about it from a climate change perspective and talk about all the damage that we’re doing, and that is in the book. But I felt like in order to talk about solutions or a way out, you have to understand the problem from all the different perspectives. You have to really see and understand stuff, and what it’s doing in our lives. Because if you look around, it’s everywhere. Like right now, wherever you are, whoever you are, I guarantee you you’re surrounded by objects made by humans.

Stuff, the things we make that are the products of our hands, is so central to who we are as a species, to who we are as individuals. And it’s also really central to the climate change problem because it is so monumental.

What I’m trying to do in the book is acknowledge the vastness and the complexity of this topic on the personal level, on a business level, on a scientific climate change level, on a policy level. Appreciate the problem—I shouldn’t call it a problem—appreciate this category of our humanity.

We can’t really move ahead and try to get past our clogged planet if we don’t understand that we need stuff and it is fundamentally a part of who we are as humans. That understanding of or respect for our stuff and the role it plays in our lives is something that I don’t see talked about a lot.

I think that’s why in my earlier answer, I was shying away from calling stuff a “problem.” Because while there are a lot of problems with stuff, I think that, just like food, if it becomes stigmatized then we’re missing part of the equation, which is that it can be a blessing and a source of joy. And it’s certainly essential to our survival.

Most Americans today are probably dealing with a problem of excess as opposed to a problem of scarcity, because that’s where we are. Again, just like food, even at lower socioeconomic levels in this country, there’s sometimes more of a problem of an excess of cheap “stuff calories” as opposed to actual scarcity of calories.

We love food, we love stuff, which is totally natural. But we have built a system that can satisfy every appetite to the nth degree in a heartbeat. The problem we’re facing today is due to our technological capacity to fulfill our appetites. The appetites themselves are totally normal and sensible and frankly, quite lovely.

How do we build a system that isn’t over-satisfying our very natural appetites? Historically and still in certain traditional cultures, it was and is easier to live in balance. But those traditional habits surrounding stuff are being decimated as the U.S. exports its patterns of consumption worldwide, just like traditional languages, just like traditional diets. The traditional ways of living with the physical world are also being diminished by globalization.

When I worked at the Greenmarket, my friends and coworkers at the market and I used to talk about how working at the farmers market is “a lifestyle.” We were referring not only to the physical necessities of the job, but also to using reusable containers, composting, and reducing waste wherever possible.

Your book hits on a lot of similar aspects to that lifestyle in terms of waste reduction and making it work with what you’ve got. Can you talk about your personal “lifestyle” or guiding philosophy a little bit and how you’ve arrived where you are now?

It’s a lifestyle, but there’s another layer to it that has to do with habit, and physicalizing or internalizing certain behaviors. For instance, I don’t think every time I throw something in the compost now. I just started composting at some point and now it feels weird to not do it. When New York canceled compost at the start of COVID, it was disgusting to me to put my food scraps right in the regular trash. It was so funny how disruptive that change was, and it was not because I’m an environmentalist and trying to combat climate change, it was just because it was a break in my habit and it was this physical action that had started to feel really normal and healthy.

I think there’s a huge part of the book that is about embracing that and saying there’s a way to just begin. Like all habits, you do have to start somewhere, but then it can just become a thing that you do. I’m trying to help people see that the steps to deal with stuff more sustainably are not complicated and like food, you can get there over time.

I learned a lot on the food movement in terms of the lifestyle question. The farmer’s market is a good analogy because the food movement is more advanced than what I call the “stuff movement.” It’s more firmly established in the zeitgeist, or the collective consciousness, that what you eat and how you eat impacts the planet, impacts your health, impacts communities around the world.

I tried to consciously build on that and say, ‘Hey, stuff is just like food, and just like you can have a healthy food way of living, you can have the healthy stuff way of living.’ It’s not a fad diet. It’s not a restrictive, horrible thing that you’re going to have to change every few days.

Two hands holding pliers, fixing jewelry
Fixing some jewelry.

And so I (on purpose) borrowed from Michael Pollan, the food writer, because I love his work. I wanted to consciously build on his concepts and show people how it’s similar. Michael Pollan said for food, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” So in Fixation I lay out these five steps for stuff: “Have good stuff (not too much), mostly reclaimed. Care for it. Pass it on.” There’s all kinds of details within it, but that’s really all you have to remember.

How can we “enlighten” people so they see the importance of their individual choices within larger systems? In your book you say that not taking individual actions “denies each of us a place in the world. If our actions are part of the problem, then they must be part of the solution.” What’s your advice for people wanting to make a difference and be a part of the solution?

I’m glad you brought this up, because it’s such an important question. I think in that section of the book that you’re quoting, I was reacting what sometimes I see in the kind of climate action movement: this little fight between people saying individual actions don’t matter versus individual actions do matter. Or the even more reductive version is to say it’s all the corporations’ fault.

Or sometimes I’ll hear things like, ‘Well, we don’t need to change individual actions, what we need is systemic change’—as if there’s a dichotomy, or as if the two are not related. That whole thing just leaves me totally cold, because to me it’s all related. They are all separate levels of detail on the problem. I could zoom way out and talk about a systemic problem. I can zoom way in and talk about an individual’s actions. If I’m only looking at one, I’m missing a part of the picture.

There are a lot of policies and business practices that would make it a lot easier for people to live these low-waste, sustainable lifestyles. That’s really what we need, because we need it to become the default. We need it to become easy. We can’t wait around for people to heroically choose to repair their item instead of buying a new one—it does need to become part of the system.

Sandra and the team speaking with a customer at one of the Fixit pop-ups.

But taking individual action is part of getting there. That’s where you build at the community level. You go to the farmer’s market, you go to the community board, you go to the schools, and that’s where you actually get a culture shift. Businesses also have a huge role to play, especially in this particular arena of stuff and consumption. They have to really change their core business models, which is a big ask, but I actually think it’s doable and believable.

A good example of how individual action and activism matter is the bag ban in New York City. We have this plastic bag policy in New York, which was passed in March. That policy, which is going to have so much impact, was built on a lot of individual actions and a lot of activism and community organizing. It will be supported and scaled and facilitated by businesses figuring out how to make it work from their perspectives. It shows all the spheres of individual, business, and policy.

This is why I get distressed when I hear people saying, ‘Don’t talk to individuals.’ Why not? Why would I only talk to one segment of society?

And of course, individuals make up all segments of society.

Exactly. Who do you think is writing the policies?

Wondering where to get started with healthier consumption habits? Goldmark has provided some recommendations for where to look for secondhand items, get things repaired, and find new homes for unwanted items. Some of these are specific to New York City, but there should be similar options elsewhere around the country. In no particular order:

  1. Your local tailor. Most dry cleaning stores in NYC also employ skilled tailors, plus there are many independent tailoring stores. Bring your old clothes to repair or rejuvenate with a different shape, and bring the items you’ve bought second hand to make them your own.
  2. Your local shoe repair shop. These shops are also scattered about the city, and can reliably replace the soles of your favorite shoes, revitalize your handbags and leather jackets, and waterproof just about anything.
  3. ThredUp. It’s a giant thrift store online! There is so much to choose from, and you can search by brand. Everything is far more affordable than it would be new, and they have recently added a partnership with Rent the Runway to help them sell their previously rented designer clothes, so you know there are some high quality options. Sometimes it can be hard to get a clear sense of the items, since they only provide a couple of photos — think of it like shopping at a Goodwill that doesn’t have a fitting room; sometimes you just have to get things home before you can try them on.
  4. AptDeco. A furniture resale platform that takes the guesswork out of pickup and delivery. High-quality items that are vetted for their condition, unlike on Craigslist, in a much more controlled setting than eBay, for instance. Other similar sites include 1stDibs and Chairish.
  5. Depop. Shop directly from other people’s closets—this app is big in the fashion community. You can search by style or brand, see what comes up all over the country, and direct message other users. Easy to sell items from your own closet that you don’t need or use anymore, but that are in good shape and on trend.
  6. Buy Nothing Project groups on Facebook. These groups exist all over New York City for different neighborhoods, and all over the country in different towns. They are closed groups, meaning you have to request to join them and prove you’re living in the area. You can post what you’re looking for and see if there’s someone who has it, or you can post something you no longer need and see if there’s anyone who wants to pick it up. Everything is free.
  7. Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist. These two are very similar and so we are grouping them together. If you’re looking for something, do a search. When you find an item that interests you, message the seller to see if it’s still available and to arrange pickup or drop-off. There is an option to set your search to “free”, to see what people are giving away.
  8. Housing Works, Goodwill, Salvation Army. The old guard of buying secondhand, Goodwill and Salvation Army, have been joined by Housing Works, which carries not only clothing and shoes and small home items, but also furniture, books, jewelry, and sometimes designer items. At all three your purchases go towards charities.
  9. Big Reuse. It’s all that a normal charity thrift store is and more. You can get clothes, books, and home goods in addition to lumber, doors and windows, kitchen appliances, furniture, and more. Their warehouse is in Queens, NY, and you can shop online for pickup in-store. All proceeds go to support Big Reuse’s mission to reduce the environmental burden of construction waste.
  10. The Public Library. The OG circular economy hub! No explanation needed; shout-out to NYPL, we love you!
  11. Crown Services at 109th and Broadway. For our local readers, this longstanding shop does vacuum and sewing machine repairs. We bet they’d be capable of helping with other things, too, but that’s a matter between you and your repair person.
  12. The Renewal Workshop. They take discarded, damaged, or otherwise unsellable clothes and goods from retail brands and repair or upcycle them for resale.
  13. Patagonia Worn Wear. Used and refurbished Patagonia goods. Plus you can trade in your used Patagonia gear for store credit! Be sure also to check out Patagonia’s repair program before giving up on your items.
  14. REI Used Gear. Similar to Patagonia, REI offers refurbished goods, usually for a fraction of the cost of a new item. And while they don’t do gear repairs in-house, they do have advice.
  15. Cahoots Co. This new start-up is a membership-based shared closet for kids’ clothes. Similar to something like Rent the Runway, but for everyday children’s clothes from sizes 0-10. Pay a monthly membership fee to gain access to the options; trade in when your kid grows out of the clothes, up to a year.

Happy shopping, and wishing you a sustainable new year!

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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