Larry Larry, September 29, 2021

Island Press

176 pages

Review by Hannah Langhoff

When I was in college, I owned a pair of socks adorned with cartoon cats. They were quirky and fun, and I wore them often–so often that one day I found a hole in the toe. So I emailed my mom and asked, “Do you know how to darn socks?”

Her reply came in short order: “Yes, you throw them away and tell your mother you need socks for Christmas.”

Like many of us, author Sandra Goldmark has been in this situation: staring down at some well-loved, well-used object that’s finally broken, willing it to work again. As she explains in the introduction to Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet, “You are reading these words because my toaster broke. And my desk lamp. And the strap on my backpack. And my vacuum.” Goldmark fought the temptation to toss her broken possessions and order new ones on Amazon, but getting them repaired was difficult or outright impossible. How, she wondered, could we create a society in which our stuff is built to last and be repaired instead of sent to a landfill? 

Goldmark defines “stuff” as everything in our homes that isn’t food. And humanity has a stuff problem. Household consumption causes up to 60% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide, making it a major driver of climate change. More specifically, the energy cost of stuff–extracting raw materials, manufacturing it, transporting it, and finally disposing of it–is responsible for 17% of GHG emissions worldwide. Besides the harm to the climate, our linear economy of cheap, abundant, disposable goods contributes to pollution and often has disastrous health effects on the people who produce those goods.

How did we get into this situation? Goldmark outlines the rise of planned obsolescence and identifies material and design choices that give objects a short usable lifespan. She describes her husband’s attempts to repair an iPad; he discovered that the screen was glued on so tightly that Apple’s designers clearly hadn’t meant for it to be removable. Manufacturers use proprietary screws that only their licensed repairers can remove. In short, companies such as Apple and Nespresso have few incentives to make their products repairable (and plenty of incentives to make them hard to repair.) Which brings us back to the cat socks. My mom had a point: these particular socks weren’t made to be darned. They were cheap, thin novelty socks, meant to be tossed in the trash as soon as they showed signs of wear. 

Goldmark’s background is in theatrical set design, which at first glance seems like an odd path to environmental activism. But set designers are experts on building, repairing, and improvising. These skills allowed Goldmark, her husband, and a group of friends to found Fixup, a group that runs pop-up repair shops around New York City. Each chapter begins with an anecdote about a different customer and the broken object they sought to have repaired, from a shower radio to an IKEA lamp to a hawk perch (which is exactly what it sounds like.) 

This leads Goldmark to some interesting observations about psychology. Our emotions, our sense of identity, and even our spirituality affect our relationship to our stuff. Sometimes human psychology can make it harder to break away from our linear, disposable economy. For example, while she advocates buying stuff secondhand instead of new, she points out that buying new is simpler and more “frictionless” under our current system. Also, fears of contamination make many people avoid used items, especially clothing. On the other hand, psychological factors sometimes work in favor of a circular, sustainable economy focused on repair. Emotional attachments can make us reluctant to throw away even the most mundane, inexpensive objects, even when repair is impractical or costs as much as buying a replacement.

The public conversation about climate change often returns to the value of individual action vs. collective action. Is it really worth fixing your toaster or recycling your empty bottles when our whole economy is organized to crank out more toasters, more single-use plastics? A great strength of Fixation is that Goldmark doesn’t treat individual action as either a meaningless distraction or a silver bullet. She addresses the need for policy changes, but adds, “Together, our individual actions add up to collective actions–to our culture. And the choices we make in our daily lives influence the choices we make as families, as communities, and ultimately, influence the choices we make at the ballot box, where we can come together to scale and multiply those many individual choices.”

I finally did learn how to darn, when I wore a hole through the finger of my favorite gloves. I found an Instructables tutorial that showed how to weave yarn over the hole, alongside instructions for fixing everything from shoes to dishwashers. People are making the choices Goldmark describes, learning to fix their own stuff and empowering others to do the same. The challenge will be to “scale and multiply” these choices, creating an economy and a society in which we have healthier relationships with our stuff and with the Earth.

Further resources:

  • Fixup – Goldmark’s New York City pop-up repair service
  • The Repair Association – A group advocating for right-to-repair legislation, which requires manufacturers to make parts and documentation available to consumers and independent repairers. One such bill, the Digital Fair Repair Act, is currently in the Illinois House of Representatives.
  • iFixit – Provides free repair guides and teardown instructions for electronics, appliances, and more
  • Instructables – A huge collection of user-created DIY tutorials, including a section on repair.