How often have you felt the dread of noticing that your smartphone is showing signs of damage or slowdown, knowing it’s now time to change it?
That hopelessness of thinking you can’t repair it and that purchasing a new one will be a much cheaper and more straightforward (yet annoying) solution even if you wanted to.
In a world where pollution and waste represent a critical consequence of a “feed me” economy model, finding new ways to prolong the life of our devices, vehicles, and appliances is a duty rather than a right.
Or, at least, it should be, since the right to repair is always denied.
Many manufacturers have made sure their products have the shortest life possible through tactics such as planned obsolescence and discouragement of third parties or self-repair.
Things are slowly, but finally, changing, and some governments are starting to establish the “right to repair” devices without having to jump through hoops or risk a lawsuit.
Is this a true paradigm shift, or is it just another challenge that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) will find a subtle way to overcome by tiptoeing around it?
Why Can’t Customers Repair Their Devices?
In a world where the economy is dominated by consumerism, manufacturers have developed new strategies to force consumers to buy new products on a regular basis.
Planned obsolescence ensured by low-quality components made to break after some time was the first step, but things reached a new level when products became increasingly dependent on their software.
At the heart of each device or even home appliance, there’s software that controls it – be it a smartphone, a smart TV, a refrigerator, an oven, a computer, or even a vehicle.
OEMs usually deny any chance to repair a product by preventing third parties from copying or altering this software in any way. They claim they do this for security reasons, since altered software may threaten the consumer’s safety, and to prevent trade secret theft.
It makes for a world where copyright law is weaponized to deny any chance for consumers to fix their goods, forcing replacement over repair in many ways, for instance, voiding warranties when a non-authorized shop repairs a product.
These tactics are usually more than sufficient to at least severely discourage the use of independent services for repair.
The Consequences of Not Repairing Our Devices
The environmental consequences of throwing away all these digital devices are enormous and catastrophic, both for the ecosystem and the health of people in less developed countries. E-waste amounts to 53 megatons per year, way more than the mere nine megatons we produced in 2014. In Europe, where the amount of e-waste generation per capita is the highest in the world, every citizen produces 16.2 kg of e-waste per year.
But what happens to all this dangerous and highly polluting trash?
The vast majority of it (more than 80%) is not collected or recycled in an adequately documented way, so we simply have no idea of what its true environmental impact actually is.
What we do know is that it has a tremendous impact. E-waste occupies just 2%–5% of the total solid volume of all waste, but it accounts for over 70% of it in terms of toxicity.
Even e-waste recycling activities cause the release of at least a thousand harmful substances to human health, and it can pollute the environment by leaching into the soil and water supplies.
These substances range from heavy metals to hydrocarbons and flame retardants, all of which are poisonous and carcinogenic. This is particularly horrible when e-waste recycling involves nearly 18 million children in what can be considered one of the most dangerous forms of child labor.
What Are We Doing To Stop All This?
We, as consumers, are always blamed for everything that happens, especially when it comes to acting against global warming.
But there’s only so much we can do when our video card doesn’t work anymore, and repairing it will cost as much, if not even more, than buying a new one.
To some degree, some companies, such as Back Market or GameStop, found intelligent ways to establish a circular economy where products can be refurbished to prolong their lifecycle at affordable prices. They do that through reverse engineering or by finding cunning tactics to circumvent the limits.
But it’s not simple, and while buying a refurbished product (or selling your broken one to them) is a good thing in terms of sustainability, it’s still far from simply being able to bring it to a repair shop to have it fixed for a few bucks.
A proper law framework that protects the end consumer by compelling companies to guarantee the right to repair is necessary, and several movements have sprung, such as The Repair Association in the US or Repair.eu in Europe.
A right-to-repair law should compel manufacturers to make parts, diagnostic tools, and diagrams available to third parties so that devices will not be as disposable and can enjoy longer life cycles.
Fortunately, some governmental authorities, such as Canada and the EU, have acknowledged this need.
Yet, “acknowledging a need” is still far from “establishing a law,” and we’re still in the “let’s talk about it” stage while the planet keeps collapsing under the megatons of pollution. And before you think “But we’re almost there, come on”, let’s take a look at this timeline:
The Timeline of Laws to Guarantee the Right to Repair:
- 1975 – The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act is established by the Federal Trade Commission to define what a warranty includes in a clear and understandable way. The purpose is to prevent companies from denying warranty coverage after a client tries to repair a product. To this day, countless car manufacturers blatantly ignore the Magnuson-Moss law and keep misleading consumers into believing service shops must install only original replacement parts.
- 1996 – The OBD-II specification mandates that every car have an open and independent access to the car diagnostics in the form of an OBD-II port. This is necessary to control and monitor that vehicle’s emissions.
- 1998 – A similar law is established in Europe.
- 2011 – iFixit, an independent movement for the right of repair, advocated the right for jailbreaking phones with the US Copyright Office. Thanks to them, an exemption has been granted, and now it’s legal to jailbreak a phone if the US Copyright Office is notified of this within nine days.
- 2012 – An overwhelming majority of Massachusetts electors (84%) vote for the “Right to Repair” Initiative to require vehicle owners and independent repair facilities to be able to access the same repair information and vehicle diagnostic made available to the manufacturers’ authorized ones. After manufacturers found new loopholes to circumvent this law, an update was voted again with a vast majority in 2019.
- 2015 – The “Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act” provides consumers again with the opportunity to unlock their cellphones against the previous provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA). In the same year, iFixit obtains new exemptions for tablets, cars, and tractors, and in the United Kingdom, a consumer’s right to fair repair is included in that year’s Consumer Rights Act.
- 2018 – The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) declares initiatives toward ensuring the right to repairing and reutilizing devices to be a priority.
- 2021 – The right to repair is introduced in the state of New York by Congressman Joe Morelle. Many other US states are currently trying to establish a set of rules to guarantee this right.
- 2023 – As part of the European Green Deal, the European Commission adopted a new proposal on common rules promoting the repair of goods to be adopted in 2024.
In a nutshell, we’ve been going back and forth and talking about this for nearly 50 years.
The planet is not waiting for us. For decades, big companies from the automotive or technology sector have made all kinds of announcements supporting eco-sustainability, improved repairability, and easing of recycling processes of their products.
However, for the most part, this has been lip service to protect themselves against legislation that hurts the bottom line and saves their reputation with the public.
In reality, all their lobbying forces us to go back and forth with new laws every time a loophole is found, all while the prices of goods and their “authorized” repairs keep increasing.
The right to repair is a duty towards future generations and a moral obligation to ensure we all live in a better, fairer, and cleaner world.