Big Issue Vendor

Each week in The Big Issue we bring you a celebration of the thinkers, the creators, the agitators. We’re looking at somebody who has come up with an invention or an idea that is moving the dial. This week, we speak to Sophie Unwin, who is driven to help the nation reduce, reuse and repair with her skills building workshops. 

Sophie Unwin’s venture into social entrepreneurship began in a Brixton community centre, emboldened by a desire for action in the wake of the financial crash. “How about a reuse and repair centre?” she’d cried to a startled crowd of locals, surprising even herself. “All the elderly immigrants can teach the unemployed bankers something useful.”

That call to arms would eventually lead her to set up the Remade Network, a globe-spanning collection of projects which reduce waste in communities, repair household goods and teach customers the skills to make fixes themselves. Sophie describes it as a “social franchise” system, with international organisers encouraged to build on her model and share resources. As well as repair education, the 44-year-old London native knows that the creation of meaningful jobs for locals is more important than ever. The network, driven by her direction and consultancy, is also intended to open up opportunities for people around the world.

Before the network officially launched in Glasgow last week, Sophie had already helped set up a Remakery centre in Brooklyn, New York, with plans in place for locations in New Zealand, Mauritius, Canada, Tasmania and beyond.

But it was in Nepal that Sophie’s perspective on waste shifted. Teaching English in a rural village when she was 18, she lived without electricity and running water. “Everything was precious so if anything broke, we fixed it,” she says. “In that year, we created less than a dustbin of rubbish.” The real culture shock, she recalls, was returning home to UK consumerist culture.“People don’t know where their things came from, what they’re made of or how they’re disposed of. But we know this pattern of economic growth isn’t sustainable, we know we’re doing all this environmental damage. And we know the people most affected by these problems are the least responsible for contributing to them.”

As time went on, she only felt more passionate about what could be done to extend the accepted life span of a chair, a computer or a pair of trousers. Repair and reuse struck Sophie as a brilliantly simple solution to environmental worries: “So many of us have this guilty hangover feeling, well aware our lifestyles aren’t sustainable. So my whole idea was rather than blaming people, just educate and make it easier for people to behave in a different way. Give them the tools to change how they live, figuratively and literally.”

A degree in sustainability and a career in environmental journalism later, life led Sophie north and she tentatively set up Edinburgh Remakery in 2011 – a second incarnation of a similar project she previously helped launch in Brixton. The Edinburgh enterprise began as “a group of volunteers in a community hall and £60.”

My 3 tips for success

  1. Put your impact into numbers. Quantifying the social or environmental benefit your work has is a great way to get people on board.
  2. Be persistent. So many times people said no to me and that was I was doing was impossible.
  3. Avoid burnout and value your own effort. Studies have shown that social enterprises run by people who pay themselves a decent wage are more likely to succeed.

Sophie went door-to-door round neighbouring businesses to rally support and hear feedback, and soon the Remakery had expanded so much that she was forced to move premises. And then again. The Edinburgh Remakery does receive funding from the likes of Zero Waste Scotland, but 80 per cent of its income is from the core activities it offered like computer repair education – as well as accepting donations of old and broken items which the team refurbishes for sale.

Sophie explains the benefits of her model in practice: “I cracked my phone screen last week and took it into a standard network shop where I was quoted £170. Whereas the proposition at Edinburgh Remakery is that they’ll just charge their time – £40 an hour – and the cost of parts.

“It took half an hour and the new screen was £20, so I paid £40 all-in. It’s a reasonable and affordable service, but not only that, they’re showing you what they’re doing as they’re doing it. It’s Remakery policy to fix things with you and talk you through it. The point is to get away from this whole thing of constant upgrades and planned obsolescence.”

Despite the success of the social enterprise, which ultimately grew into a thriving community staple, Sophie stepped down from her role as director earlier this year. Her business at Edinburgh Remakery, she thought, was done. “The vision was always to grow to something which was a viable business with employees. By the time I left, there were 10 employees and turnover of £240,000.”

But instead of turning her back on the reusability ethos, Sophie made a quiet decision to push it globally. With experience, confidence and resources behind her, she kickstarted the process all over again to establish the Remade Network. She’s now in touch with over 65 communities worldwide, all at varying stages of setting up locally.

As the Remade Network webs across continents, Sophie will continue to enforce her main requirement for membership: shared values. Without them, she states, there’s no point. “We want a Remakery in every town. It’s about people in communities having the skills to fix things but also to make a livelihood out of it. Not a volunteer model but a place of employment,” she says. “A regenerative economy. There’s power there for society to tap into. That’s what I want for us.”

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Illustration: Lyndon Hayes