In this article, we look at the right-to-repair movement, where it comes from, and how it’s progressing.
The ‘right-to-repair’ is a movement that seeks to have rules/legislation passed that forces manufacturers (e.g. of appliances, electrical products, white goods and more) to make parts (and information) available to end customers, not just approved/authorised repairers, and technicians, so that it is possible for end-users to fix the product at home. The basic idea is that this could help tackle built-in obsolescence, thereby prolonging product life cycles, creating better value and saving money for consumers, and reducing the number of products going to waste thereby helping the environment.
Built-in or planned obsolescence is a policy of designing and making products that have an artificially limited useful life or a purposely frail design, thereby ensuring that they will become obsolete and useless to the buyer within a certain time period/will have a deliberately short lifespan (e.g. a few years). This, of course, will require the consumer to buy another product, thereby ensuring more sales. Part of the setup to support this cycle involves making the product a ‘closed book’ to the end consumer by making parts unavailable, limiting information about the workings of the product, and potentially making repair seem unattractive, too costly, or too or dangerous to consumers.
Although people some cite it as more of a conspiracy theory (preferring to blame consumers), planned obsolescence appears to have started a long time ago (e.g. “Phoebus cartel” in the 1920s) where leading light bulb manufacturers colluded to artificially reduce bulbs’ lifetimes to 1,000 hours.
Software and Apps
Today, it is not just the manufacture of physical goods that contributes to obsolescence. For example, in the case of many tech items, not enabling the latest apps to run on older versions of a device can seriously limit the usefulness and appeal of the device.
UK’s First Small Step
Earlier this month, the UK government passed laws that mark what many consider to be a useful first step towards the right-to-repair. The new UK laws mean that manufacturers must make spare parts available to people buying electrical appliances, and those parts must be sold directly by the manufacturer for 10 years, even if the complete products are no longer selling in their range. The new UK laws are accompanied by changes in efficiency standards of products that are designed to cut carbon emissions.
However, the new UK laws are limited to appliances (e.g. white goods) and the kinds of parts that manufacturers are required to make available are fairly simple and safe ones such as hinges or new baskets for fridges/freezers. Also, there is a grace period of the next two years before manufacturers must make spare parts available. Critics also argue that the UK government has not technically given consumers a legal right to repair because the spare parts and repairability criteria only apply to professional repairers, not end users/owners.
In Europe, the European Commission (EC) has already announced plans to introduce right-to-repair rules for smartphones, tablets, and laptops, and in the US, there are reports that President Joe Biden is soon expected to sign an executive order which will ask the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to draw up some rules for the repair of farming equipment. Currently, however, only Massachusetts has a right-to-repair law which was passed in 2013 and relates to vehicle manufacturers providing diagnostic and repair information in certain circumstances.
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is a known advocate of right-to-repair. In a recent reply to another right-to-repair campaigner Louis Rossmann on Cameo (where video messages and greetings from celebrities can be purchased), Mr Wozniak pointed out that open technology was one of the key factors that led to the development of the first Apple computers and that he believes that inhibiting the right-to-repair could be a way for companies to simply gain power and control over everything. Mr Wozniak highlighted how the ability to build something from parts is also a way for people to afford something that they couldn’t ordinarily afford, help creativity, education/learning, and motivation.
The Safety Argument
One of the big arguments against the right-to-repair by manufacturers is that it may not be safe for consumers to attempt repairs. Tech companies Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are among those who specify who can repair their phones and game consoles on the grounds that there could be safety and security risks if end users attempted repairs of these electrical/tech items themselves. It has also been reported that the John Deere tractor manufacturer has expressed opposition to the idea of end-users repairing its products due to possible safety risks.
Low Price Products
Low prices are another way the motivation to repair an item can be eroded, thereby weakening the right-to-repair argument for many consumers. For example, if appliances are very cheap and go wrong within a few years, buying another one may seem cheaper and less trouble than trying to repair the existing one.
High Price For Parts
Similarly, making the parts (or software upgrades) for repair prohibitively expensive could be another way that companies could erode the motivation of consumers to repair their products.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
Even though the right-to-repair movement has some sound reasons behind it (e.g. environmental) and some high-profile advocates, it still has a very long way to go. UK laws have taken one small step this month although there is a long grace period before companies must comply, and there is some hope that the US will make some new laws within weeks that it will advance right-to-repair beyond the very limited automotive areas where there are some rules at the moment, but still just to farming machinery. As the movement gathers pace it will put pressure on manufacturers and tech companies to find ways to comply, maintain profits, and protect their image by being seen to be acting fairly and responsibly as consumers are becoming more environmentally aware as well as being able to take to social media to influence each other in their purchasing.