Thami Schweichler, United Repair Center: “Change may be a phone call away.”

The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combating climate change. Facts and figures speak for themselves, but who exactly are the people behind this extraordinary work? In this storytelling series, we spotlight brave individuals who move mountains in their climate action strategies and solutions. Today: Thami Schweichler, United Repair Center and former winner of the What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge.


I was born in São Paulo, Brazil. My mum is Dutch, and my father is Brazilian. In Brazil, you see wealth and poverty conflicting with each other in a very brutal way. I grew up with a critical perspective on this, thinking, “What can we do to make a difference?”

As a teenager, I’d write songs for rock bands talking about how to change the world. Then I studied design at university. When I was supposed be thinking about designing couches and chairs, I could only think of systems to help disadvantaged populations. I’ve been fortunate to find this in my work by creating a business for change.

Power in working together

The biggest turning point for me came in 2016, in the Netherlands. I had a fantastic job. I was working with a Dutch startup in Kenya, building a motorcycle to improve the local situation. At this time, the Syrian refugee crisis was reaching a peak.

I found it absurd that people were not welcome in our society. These are people, just like you and me, with dreams and ambitions. I was part of a collective that created a campaign to raise awareness and show that, together, we can create a better society for all.

We created a campaign for King’s Day in 2016, which brought a lot of people onto the streets of Amsterdam. We made an installation out of orange life vests people had left of Greek shores and used the vests to make orange ribbons – like the awareness-raising ribbons for HIV and cancer.  This helped us create a plan for the What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge in 2016. It made me realise there’s something powerful in getting people together to make products.

Connecting people to opportunities

Students volunteered together with refugees, who we call ‘newcomers’. We made thousands of ribbons over weeks and months. And I saw a lot of newcomers begin to see opportunities in their new country.

I remember one young man called Hassan. He asked me if I could help him find a school where he could learn to code, because he liked programming. I soon found out that he was dedicated to learning. It took one phone call to someone I knew who was starting a coding school. I asked him to give Hassan a chance. I could see he had a lot of talent – it was just about connecting him to an opportunity.

Hassan’s story was mind-blowing for me. I thought, “I could design a process to make this happen every day, so that people get new chances.” We could make a product together that would pay the bill. That was my first realisation of the impact we could create.

Social impact through repairs

It’s eight years since the refugee challenge. As a designer, I never see a result as a finished product. At Makers Unite, we concluded that the business model was not the right fit for the impact we wanted to create. We decided to focus on the repairs industry instead.

We were fortunate to forge a collaboration with clothing brand Patagonia to create United Repair Center. It’s a model that is commercially based but anchored in social impact. We provide jobs for people who are distant from the labour market, and we want to do this at scale.

We’ve been doing this for a year and a half now. We have a location in Amsterdam with 25 employees, and a second location in London with five employees. There’s a lot of positive energy around it. We’re signing brands every month and there’s lots of media interest. I think a combination of experience and a mindset of improvement are critical to the impact we want to create.

Opportunity to reconnect

I tend to see things from a positive perspective – the glass is always half full. At the same time, there are some desperate moments in the world. When we started the Refugee Challenge eight years ago, there were 50 million people who had been forced to flee. Today, there are 120 million people in that situation. It can feel quite overwhelming when you look at migration, climate change, war and how the economic divide leads to social polarisation.

The mindset of individual growth, individual gain and competition has been proven wrong. I believe we’re working towards a different, interconnected world where data and AI are going to play a big role. I hope that as humanity faces its biggest challenges it also sees an opportunity to reconnect.

There’s so much positive energy for change – with legislation to hold companies accountable and the growth of the B Corp movement. I hope this will scale in the coming years because technology can make it possible. I hope that a realisation of our interconnectedness will ease polarisation in society.

Steps towards positive change

If I had two minutes to speak at COP, I’d say that we are beyond a wake-up call. The climate won’t heal itself. For us to act on the climate, we have to act on people. I believe that we should focus on the human dimension of our current situation and provide solutions for people to heal the planet.

My biggest hope is that the knowledge we’re gathering will create justice for all. In a world with so much wealth, there’s absolutely no room for a child to be born without the opportunity to thrive. I’m excited to think of technology as an enabler. I’m hopeful that we’re walking towards a world where technology will enable distribution and where people can access opportunities on a large scale.

I truly believe that inside each one of us, we want positive change. But only a very few of us take the step of making a difference. All of us must take that step, even if it’s something very simple. I always say, “Make that first phone call” because change may be just a phone call away. I believe in the positive effect of throwing that drop of hope into the world.

About
Thami Schweichler is the founder of United Repair Center and the co-founder of the Makers Unite. With a background in social design, he is a designer by education and an entrepreneur by obligation. The United Repair Center helps clothing brands create repair programmes to extend the life span of clothing. It does this by creating jobs for people who are distant from the labour markets. In 2016, Thami was one of the winners of the What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge, the first challenge the IKEA Foundation funded.

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@purpose Climate Lab builds and supports campaigns that inspire people to take bold #ClimateAction and adopt fair #ClimateChange solutions the world 🌍

We’re proud to partner with Purpose Climate Lab to support its ambitious, people-centred campaigns protecting our planet and ensuring a just transition to a low-carbon future.

One of IKEA Foundation’s values is to ‘renew and improve’. That’s why we’re delighted to share the Purpose Climate Lab’s reflections on an independent evaluation of their work 📣 

It provides important lessons on how to improve the impact of climate change mobilisation.

Explore each reflection in the article found via our bio link 🔗

#ClimateSolutions #PeopleAndPlanet
@purpose Climate Lab builds and supports campaigns that inspire people to take bold #ClimateAction and adopt fair #ClimateChange solutions the world 🌍

We’re proud to partner with Purpose Climate Lab to support its ambitious, people-centred campaigns protecting our planet and ensuring a just transition to a low-carbon future.

One of IKEA Foundation’s values is to ‘renew and improve’. That’s why we’re delighted to share the Purpose Climate Lab’s reflections on an independent evaluation of their work 📣 

It provides important lessons on how to improve the impact of climate change mobilisation.

Explore each reflection in the article found via our bio link 🔗

#ClimateSolutions #PeopleAndPlanet
@purpose Climate Lab builds and supports campaigns that inspire people to take bold #ClimateAction and adopt fair #ClimateChange solutions the world 🌍 We’re proud to partner with Purpose Climate Lab to support its ambitious, people-centred campaigns protecting our planet and ensuring a just transition to a low-carbon future. One of IKEA Foundation’s values is to ‘renew and improve’. That’s why we’re delighted to share the Purpose Climate Lab’s reflections on an independent evaluation of their work 📣 It provides important lessons on how to improve the impact of climate change mobilisation. Explore each reflection in the article found via our bio link 🔗 #ClimateSolutions #PeopleAndPlanet
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Our purpose at the IKEA Foundation is to create a better everyday life for the many people 🌍

We’re proud to work with so many amazing partners who help us achieve this vision established by our founder, Ingvar Kamprad 🧑‍🤝‍🧑

#PeopleAndPlanet
Our purpose at the IKEA Foundation is to create a better everyday life for the many people 🌍 We’re proud to work with so many amazing partners who help us achieve this vision established by our founder, Ingvar Kamprad 🧑‍🤝‍🧑 #PeopleAndPlanet
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