WINNER ‘Progress toward circularity’ Marie Claire Sustainability Awards 2023

The UK’s £340m ‘Make Do and Mend’ economy

With Brexit negotiations underway this week, there is continued speculation on the fate of the UK’s post-Brexit economy. While there are calls for positivity, it looks as if UK consumers are ready to tighten their belts, with reports that they are opting to extend the lifespan of items such as electronics and household appliances rather than replacing goods. Our apparent lack of traditional ‘Make Do and Mend’ skills is driving a multi-million pound surge in businesses focussed on repairing. So when did we lose these skills?

In 2016, Merriam-Webster added the verb form of ‘adult’ to their dictionary.

“To ‘adult’ is to behave like an adult, specifically to do the things — often mundane — that an adult is expected to do.”

To those who haven’t seen the term in action, simply search #Adulting on Twitter and one will witness the excitement or laments of a generation as they figure out the skills to live independently.

It is unsurprising perhaps that young adults have some gaps in their knowledge of home living in a modern world of ready-made options, but this is an issue across all generations. Forbes reported that take-away prepared food from US grocery stores rose by 10% in 2016, spawning another new term “Grocerants.” Fast fashion retailers like H&M, Zara, and Gap have made it easy and cheap to purchase clothes for the season.

However, these quick fixes are not helping our bodies or the environment. A UK advisory group indicated that the lack of cooking skills and food knowledge is contributing to £12 billion in food waste each year. The NHS reported that one in four British adults are obese and one reason could be reliance on processed food. Many international clothes manufacturers exploit their workers and expose them to dangerous conditions.

It would seem that young adults are not exposed to many opportunities to learn the skills to be more sustainable. In 2014, the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (OFQUAL) started its phasing out of home economics classes as reported by The Telegraph. Not only has home economics come under some bad PR in recent decades, but GCSEs must be more responsive to increased demand to prep students for university.

Darning and mending might not conjure up an image of a multi-million pound industry, but The Scotsman reported last month that “businesses specialising in the repair of household goods have seen their combined sales jump more than 40% in the last five years to hit a record high £340 million

But it’s not just repairing businesses that are thriving. Skills sharing online is also big business.

“How we learn to do things is different now,” says Association for Creative Industries UK executive director Craig De Souza told The Guardian. “If you don’t know how to sew and knit you can just watch a video.”

The ‘Make Do and Mend’ culture is also driving the rise and rise of making and craft courses, although according to a Royal Society of Arts report, the maker movement should not solely be seen in the context of economic necessity.