A new French law may be the tipping point that the Right to Repair movement needed to catch the attention of consumers and legislators.
You bought a new electronic gadget, used it for a while, and then it broke. Now what? All too often, we have two choices: pay through the nose to have the manufacturer fix it, or, more likely, throw it away and buy another one. For many manufacturers, these are both great options, because high priced repairs and new sales maximize profits. However, the world is changing. Africa, the destination for much of the world’s e-waste, is drowning in old phones, computers and TV sets, since the electronics industry is generating more trash than even the plastics or textile sectors, according to the UN. Meanwhile, with rising inflation and converging global economic crises, there’s more incentive than ever to reduce waste and reuse what we have. With new legislation and consumer demand, the old fight for the right to repair our own stuff is gaining leverage.
Right to Repair bills have been slowly working their way through state legislatures for the last few years. Last summer, President Biden issued an executive order directing the FTC to take a wide range of actions, including limiting tech manufacturers’ restrictions on an equipment owner’s ability to fix their own goods. In October, the U.S. Copyright Office created an exemption to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) that allows device owners to open products to fix them.
However, a 2021 French law may have been the tipping point that Right to Repair advocates have been waiting for. The law requires phone manufacturers to rate how fixable their products are, on a scale from 0 to 10. The score is displayed next to the price tag, so consumers have some idea of what they’re getting into. Samsung commissioned a study to learn how the new ratings were going over, and discovered that 80% of buyers were willing to forego their preferred brands to buy one that’s easier to fix, instead. The enormously popular scorecards are driving big changes and broadly affecting the market. As Nathan Proctor, who directs the Right to Repair campaign for the US Public Interest Research Group told The Verge, no matter how long the industry has known about their customers’ frustration, changes like this don’t happen “unless there’s a threat of legislation.”
Apple may have been bowing to consumer pressure when they introduced their new self service repair program last week, but they’re not being nearly so openhanded as Right to Repair advocates hoped. Customers can now order repair kits to fix various components in their newer iPhones, but the process is not autonomous or smooth. Requirements include supplying the serial number (or IMEI), renting an official Apple tool kit for $49 per week (it weighs 79 pounds!), purchasing serialized, officially-stamped Apple repair parts separately, and, when many repairs are finished, the devices will require system reconfiguration directly through Apple. It’s not clear that this is less onerous than simply paying Apple to fix the device themselves or buying a new phone, but it’s a really small step in the right direction.
Another win for repair advocates came out of Colorado last week as the state’s general assembly passed a bill that will require manufacturers of motorized wheelchairs to make reasonably priced tools, repair parts and manuals available to owners and independent repair mechanics. The bill, HB22-1031, awaits the governor’s signature. It’s bad enough to need a wheelchair, but to be unable to fix a broken one, or endure long delays and expensive fixes adds insult to injury.
AdvaMed, an association representing the medical technology industry, spoke up last week against Right to Repair legislation affecting medical devices, arguing that unregulated repairs by untrained and unauthorized (read: probably cheaper) repair personnel endanger patient safety. Perhaps so, in which case there’s a compelling counterargument to be made for requiring such companies to make training, parts and manuals easier and cheaper to obtain, not hide them behind an effectively impenetrable or inconvenient paywall. Relying on companies that hold medical devices hostage to ensure maximum profit, then, is the danger to patient safety, and one wonders why we would allow this, save for our legislative bodies being far more beholden to industry than they are to the best interests of constituents.
Finally, farmers might be finding another way out of the unfixable repair trap. Back before tractors required proprietary parts and licensed software, thrifty farmers used to muck around with their machinery themselves. Unfortunately, times have changed, and John Deere can brick a farmer’s tractor and make it a crime to fix it himself. Bernie Sanders even made the right to repair farm equipment a plank in his campaign platform. However, some farmers have gone beyond the repair question altogether and are devising a production model that would rely on easily obtainable parts and open source code to run their machinery. Open source tractors are even customizable to the particular crops a farmer sees fit to grow, saving money instead of requiring new, expensive hardware. When we free the farmers to tinker, we all win.
In a world where the most sustainable, ecologically sound goods are the ones we already own, having the right to repair them ourselves is a critical step toward even marginal sustainability. Dumping broken, outdated, or intentionally obsoleted e-waste because it’s more lucrative for companies to sell us brand new stuff is not only morally inexcusable nowadays, it’s a clear sign that we’re all being farmed for profit.