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.”