Last night, I broke down and ordered a brand new pair of climbing shoes. My old ones had edged and smeared until I could feel the fresh air on my toes. While the ventilation was welcome on hot days, there’s no barefoot trend in the climbing scene—and for good reason. Wind, water, and ice are harsh, erosive agents. Their relentless battering creates the small cracks and paper-thin ledges that dot great climbing routes. That same, relentless clash between chemistry and friction erodes away the sole of a shoe as climbers’ feet find purchase on the rock features—or (to be honest) the textured plastic holds of a gym. All shoes—and climbing shoes in particular—have a finite lifespan. The rubber soles of climbing shoes strike a delicate balance between durability and performance. Steep, featureless rock requires softer sticky rubber that will not slip, while thin ledges require a durable rubber that allow a climber to safely stand on a small edge. Even Mammut, a leading manufacturer of mountaineering equipment, admits that their climbing shoes are consumable items.
So, what becomes of my shoes once I toss them in the trash? My pair joins the 300 million other shoes that are disposed of in landfills every year (coincidentally, that’s roughly the same number of electronic devices that are disposed of annually). The impacts of our throwaway lifestyle go far beyond filling up landfills: mass consumerism touches everything from environmental justice concerns over material extraction, to the toxic waste created during manufacturing, to the carbon footprint of a product’s distribution. Take a peek at Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, if you need a refresher.
And while nothing lasts forever, I could have delayed the demise of my shoes—if I’d been just a little more mindful. Climbing shoes have repairable components by design. The sole is a separate component that is glued onto the casing with a heat-activated adhesive. That sole can be replaced when it wears out, extending the life of the shoes until the more durable upper and rand gives way. But the sole must be replaced while the rest of the shoe is intact; air-conditioned toes meant I had waited too long. My shoes were too far gone for repair.
It didn’t have to be that way. The holes took months to develop; the failure of my shoes was neither sudden nor unexpected. And this is true of so many of our consumable goods. Computers have fans that clog and slow long before the computer fails. A small tear in a jacket is not a problem, until the rip catches on a branch and suddenly you’re standing in a feathery nest of down insulation. A phone battery holds less charge before it holds no charge. To be a conscientious fixer is to recognize that repair is an intervention that must occur between functioning and complete failure.
A small tear in your favorite Patagonia gear can be patched. You can replace the fan in your Macbook Pro, and the battery in your iPhone. And I could have gotten my shoes repaired, even locally in my home of San Luis Obispo, CA. But I told myself that I didn’t have the time to take them in, that I couldn’t be without climbing shoes for a week, that new was “better.” What I recognized when I was putting my old climbing shoes out to pasture was that, all too often, the only thing that prevents me from fixing something is me. And those self-imposed limits end up costing far more down the line. I had options: My local gym has free rental shoes that I could have used while my shoes were in for repair. And if I had time to climb, then I certainly had time to get my shoes fixed.
To choose repair is to conscientiously balance the personal inconvenience and internal rationalizations against the the benefits of repair. Repair is an integral component of a sustainable economy: it keeps material out of the landfill, reduces the need for material extraction, provides local jobs, and supports a local economy—all while costing you less. Replacing, on the other hand, does the exact opposite.
Repairing is a visceral way of connecting with the chain of events that turned raw materials into a shiny new iPhone or sticky new climbing shoes. Repair forces a person to engage with the physical reality of an object and to empathize with the many other hands that have mined, refined, molded, engineered, and assembled your device. It connects you to the stories of conflict mineral mining. It makes planned obsolescence a reality you cannot ignore. It makes you confront what a 70-hour-week on a factory assembly line might be like. And it it lets you catch the acrid whiff—if only in your imagination—that results from the burning of e-waste. The choice between repair and replacement should be self-evident.
My camera that clicks and freezes when it finally does feel like turning on—it’s now on its way to a repair center, and I deleted the new camera thats been sitting in my Amazon shopping cart for the past week. It’s a small step in the right direction that I know I’ll be building on. So here’s to committing to resoling those sandals, boots and shoes, to patching the small holes, and installing new batteries.
Here’s to becoming a more conscientious fixer.