Article de Manisha Marival (RSEDD 2021)
In September 2021, Apple Launched its new iPhone 13, with its usual blown-up hysteria around the launch. This new “superman” of smartphones has a redesigned camera, sharper screen, latest A15 “bionic” chipset (don’t know what this is but sounds cool) and many other features that I do not understand or maybe do not even care about.
My old iPhone 7 has started to slow down quite frequently, the battery dies down faster than it should, and then there is of course the broken screen which will cost me the earth if I try to repair it.
So, should I buy this new “iPhone 13” or just try to get my current one repaired? After all, it can carry on for another year or longer. The ecologist in me tells me to repair, my consumerist side tells me to buy a new one.
Consumption of brand-new goods and services is recognised as one of the main drivers for a high ecological deficit as well as negative and unstainable impacts on the global environment and climate  (and consequently, on human health , society and economy ). The global consumption of material resources has increased fourteen-fold between 1900 and 2015 and is projected to more than double by 2050. At a global level, the ecological deficit increased consistently and steeply until 2014, after which it stabilised at an unsustainable use of the equivalent of 1.7 Earths per year.
There are number of us who are willing to reverse this trend by adopting more sustainable choices in everyday life. Repairing the broken-down instead of replacing the equipment being one of them. Despite the greatly increasing interest of consumers in adopting more sustainable consumption behaviours, there is hinderance from several drivers (technological, legal, financial).
The businesses are often motivated by their own financial interests. Repairs are made impossible or very difficult to access even for the most willing consumer. All conditions are created to push the consumer to give up. Regulatory failures that do not consider the product lifetime and repairability conditions do not help either. And then there is of course fuelling up the consumer’s desire for new products and push him to keep up with the Joneses.
It is under these market conditions that the Right to Repair emerged. The movement, which has its roots in USA, is now gaining momentum in Europe (with different national and international organisations, such as “Runder Tisch Reparatur” in Germany, “Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée (HOP)” in France) and underlining concerns of efficiency and timeline.
One of the major advocates of the Right to Repair movement iFxit’ has a slogan “Would you buy a Bike if you could not fix the chain?” . Our immediate reaction is a well expected “No” because if you own it, you should be able to open, hack, repair it in whichever way you choose. But as the manufacturers point out, the reality is more complex and various security vulnerabilities may arise in accommodating the demands of the Right to Repair advocates . And a good example is the case of automated vehicles (AV). The intense integration of software in AVs means that any potential vulnerabilities in the vehicle’s security may result in physical, and potentially catastrophic crashes.
The traditional arguments lobbying for and against the Right to Repair largely follow an ideological push and pull rift between control of your product and its safety or security interests.
So, the question is: “Must complexity equate to non-reparability or restricted and expensive repairability?” Unfortunately, in most cases and specifically for the electric and electronic goods, the market reality is that of a restricted repair. Repairing is frequently part of the business model and there is no real incentive for the manufacturers to provide parts or information to someone else to perform repairs that could represent income for their own business . Consequently, self-repair is most of the time not possible and independent repair companies are often excluded from the market creating a “closed access to repair”. This closed access is achieved in several ways and most frequently through Design, Economic and Legal barriers.
Design Barriers: A variety of design decisions combine, whether intentionally or not, to increase friction towards repair and drive users towards a full device replacement. Sleekness has become the norm while modularity, ability for easy disassembly, and repairability have taken a back seat. We have all at some point of time faced with glued parts on small household electrical items. The loss of user detachable batteries which was once a common feature across phone brands has been lost to a sleeker design. The use of proprietary fasteners (e.g., Apple’s patented pentalobe screws), further contribute to reducing or eliminating options for component’s upgrades or repairs. In case of Laptops, the use of adhesives and soldering of parts makes component’s repairs or upgrades difficult or impossible.
Economical Barriers: Research estimates and surveys have shown that 77% of citizens would be willing to have their goods repaired, and that consumers are willing to spend on an average 20% to 30% of the replacement cost on the repair of products , . By keeping the price of repairs higher than the psychological barrier of 30%, the manufacturers make replacement a preferred option.
The independent repairers who may provide the services for a more competitive price are blocked by the unavailability of spare parts, use of serialised parts, non-availability of repair manuals etc.
Legal Barriers: Several legal regimes offer device-makers considerable power over post-sale use of their products. Copyright, patent, trademark, and contract law are efficient tools firms can leverage to threaten consumers and independent repair providers with potentially ruinous liability and legal fees.
In 2012, Tim Hicks, an Australian laptop refurbisher, created a website hosting manufacturer repair guides for laptops, called Future Proof. He had to delete every Toshiba manual after he was forced to do so by the company. There are several other highly contested cases. Given the uncertainty of litigation, the expense of mounting a robust defence, and the massive resources at the disposal of manufacturers, consumers and repair providers are unlikely to withstand a lawsuit.
The industry does not stop at using the above-mentioned barriers to stall repair, if nothing else works they simply create customer scepticism about the repaired items. Apple is one of the glaring examples of such practices. It discredits any independent repair services by introducing messages such as the one below (Figure 1) in case of Battery and Screen replacement (the most common repairs). Functionalities like True Tone in iPhone are disabled on the use of generic screens.
Creating products with strong temporal identities has become the norm for certain industries. These products can become obsolete very quickly, not because of the failure of their functional side but because of the design and the emotions they produce in people. This is the case of fast fashion where the time span of clothes has been reduced by half in the last two decades, creating millions of tons of waste . Products like smartphones which are upgraded in very fast cycles, surf on the same wave of fashion and trendiness. New versions with better technological features are launched with cheaper prices than the cost to upgrade older models. Furthermore, for many products, the cost of repair can be very high (particularly relative to replacement), often discouraging consumers to pay for repair services.
So, is this the only way to do business? The industry maintains that this is a must, to ensure consumer safety and its own business profitability.
But it isn’t, Fairphone offers fully modular mobile phones, that can be easily repaired without costing the earth. Companies like Patagonia  have given their customers the possibility to repair their clothes since a long period of time, while remaining a profitable enterprise. Over in the US, the Framework laptop has just come to the market. It’s a thin, lightweight, high-performance 13.5 inch notebook that can be upgraded, customised, and repaired in ways that no other notebook can.
Businesses and consumers alike must accept that the linear business model of “Take, Make, Waste” is not sustainable. Manufacturing is both an energy and material intensive process and prolonging the products lifetime will lead to reduction of CO2 emissions as well as resource savings. Repair will help preserve resources.
Right to repair will help create a conducive atmosphere, so that repairs become more interesting economically, with consumers finally making savings.
Increased repairability could promote a growth of the second-hand market of appliances, which could benefit low-income households as higher-quality products at a lower cost would become more affordable.
Repairs create local jobs, so increase in repairs will mean more local jobs.
Finally, the right to repair is not just an ideological or and ecological stance and can become a question of life and death in some cases. This was highlighted during the Covid 19 crisis.
We all remember the beginning of the Covid 19 crisis, when the medical world got increasingly strapped for functioning ventilators. Hospitals tried to repair the ventilators to combat the shortage and were able to do so. As per Gordon-Byrne, the executive director of Repair.org, some “on site bio medical technicians can fix ventilator in hours and return it to service more quickly than anyone else. If they can’t get the info they need to fix and restore to use — a whole lot of very sick people won’t have essential care”.
So, are we doomed?
All is not lost, there are several local initiatives, new ideas from private companies, and legislative measures which are creating an ecosystem more conducive to “repairs”. Some of the main enablers that will help us more from a “Replace” to “Repair” environment are:
Community Repair Initiatives: These initiatives started in 2009 as three small collectives (fixers Collective and Fixit Clinics in the USA and the Repair Cafés in the Netherlands) have grown up to over 2000 Repair cafés in 37 countries  in the year 2020.
Private Sector Initiatives: We also see initiative from private companies like “Patagonia”, “Levi’s” that promote repairs. In France, companies like “Murfy” offer easy access and economically interesting options to repair. Platforms like “Backmarket” offer refurbished/repaired products at attractive prices and with guarantee. The Repair Institute FNAC DARTY  France in is training a generation of certified repairers.
Reparability & Durability Index: a reparability index was introduced in January 2021 in France and is currently covering five product categories. In the coming years, the index will most likely be extended to further electrical and electronic product groups including tablets. The European commission is working with France to prepare the next version that will be applicable for all member states. Even though this index has come under some criticism , it remains a major step that will help consumers take informed decisions and push companies to improve their score.
Sustainable Product Initiative: This initiative launched by the European commission is aimed at making products sold on the EU market more sustainable, by revising the Ecodesign Directive , particularly contributing to the right to repair.
Labels and Guarantees: Several labels guide the consumer to make a more informed choice in terms of product durability, reparability. In some cases, these labels guarantee the repair quality of the refurbished product or the repairer. The IGH certification in Croatia is a very good example of government backed certification.
Economic Incentives: Sweden, Austria, Belgium have come up with different financial schemes to promote repairs: tax reductions on repairs at owners’ home, “repair bonuses” that fund 50% of the repair, eco cheques…etc.
Legal measures: Legislators have started waking up to the need of urgent action.
France adopted a law in February 2020, criminalizing the intentional irreparability and deliberate obstruction of access to repair information.
Several European states have already adopted or are planning measures for the compulsory availability of spare parts during the life span of the product.
In July 2021, the US administration signed an Executive Order which states that “Tech and other companies impose restrictions on self and third-party repairs, making repairs more costly and time-consuming, such as by restricting the distribution of parts, diagnostics and repair tools”. This executive order’s goal is to make it easier and cheaper to repair items, by limiting manufacturers from barring self-repairs or third-party repairs of their products.
These are some important steps in the right direction, but we as consumers hold the key to a more sustainable future. So, the moral of the story? Things don’t have to be the way they have been so far. And before you buy that shiny new smartphone ask yourself: do you really need it?
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