Matthew Godfrey, an assistant professor of marketing at Isenberg, is that rare consumer scientist: one who thinks about how people might be persuaded to buy less stuff, not more.
“Sustainability has been an interest of mine since I was a kid,” Godfrey says. Growing up in British Columbia, he was constantly outdoors—hiking, biking, camping, and fishing. At home, the Godfrey family repaired things. Godfrey kept his gear in order and could sew on a button or patch his jeans.
But as Godfrey grew up and entered the working world, he saw a dilemma: People lived in homes crammed with things, often felt stressed about it, and yet still bought more. It wasn’t producing happy consumers, and it certainly wasn’t good for the planet.
“I was interested in marketing, but it was a psychological weight on me. Instead of my job being to make people buy stuff they didn’t need, could I use the skills of marketing in another way?” he asked himself. And found he could answer Yes.
His research—"Repair, Consumption, and Sustainability: Fixing Fragile Objects and Maintaining Consumer Practices”—will be published this year in the Journal of Consumer Research. It’s the culmination of work he started as a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona when he began thinking about how to make consumption kinder. The idea of upcycling consumer discards—turning plastic bottles into shoes, for example—had become relatively mainstream, but Godfrey became interested in a lesser-discussed scenario: repairing items so they didn’t become waste in the first place. He began doing field research at Tucson-area cobbler and bike shops, interviewing tradespeople to investigate the links between repair and consumption.
Godfrey concluded that repair represents a significant, underserved opportunity in the United States. Very few U.S. consumer companies promote or offer repair for their goods. (There are notable exceptions: Patagonia offers free in-house repairs on some gear; during the 2021 holiday season, it urged customers to fix what they had rather than buying new and put DIY tutorials on its homepage. Red Wing Shoes, which makes work boots, operates a repair service center at its Minnesota headquarters.)
Godfrey believes most brands underestimate the value of repair, both financially to the business and emotionally to customers. People want to stick with what they already own, and they feel guilty discarding things that have some useful life left, he notes.
“When it’s something they’ve adapted into their life—a bike, or a shoe that’s broken-in the right way—people want to keep it going. They find it disruptive to buy a new version,” he says. “Every [repair] shop we visited was swamped with work.”
Steep barriers stand in the way of making repair mainstream. Many people don’t know that items can be repaired or if they do, they can’t find someone skilled to fix it. Cobblers, for example, have been in decline for decades. (One estimate pegs fewer than 4,000 shoe repair shops left in the United States.)
As well, many affordable, mass-produced products are designed to be disposable, not repairable. Most athletic shoes have soles that are heat-fused with special, costly machines and custom components that can’t be replaced with the generic pieces that cobblers stock. When a product is designed to be disposable, repair is typically not possible or economically feasible.
But things may change, Godfrey says.
As climate change and inflation make raw materials more expensive, the economics of consumption may favor repair. Some organizations (auto dealerships come to mind), have made service and repair profitable parts of the business, even exceeding the value of new-goods sales.
Further, while the U.S. has lost most of its skilled repair labor, the knowledge exists globally, Godfrey points out. Many countries (such as Cuba, Mexico, and Bangladesh) have repair shops in most neighborhoods.
“I’m hoping we can learn from cultures and economies that haven’t discarded these skills,” Godfrey says. He believes schools can play a role in bringing back repair skills, by offering shop or home ec classes. Such classes have generally been in decline in U.S. high schools.
Long term, Godfrey hopes more brands will consider repair as a natural part of the product life cycle and, accordingly, design for and market repair. In his paper, Godfrey cites Birkenstock as a model because of “the simplicity of replacing easily separable outsoles and midsoles,” making sandal repair “a cost-effective process for both consumers and shoe repair shops.”
“It may take a few generations to make change,” he observes, “but I think a market shift is coming towards using things longer.”