You bought it, you should own it. Period. You should have the right to use it, modify it, and repair it wherever, whenever, and however you want. These are the words of the Repair Association, a U.S. advocacy group that campaigns for and highlights issues relating to the right to repair.
Until recently, manufacturers were driven by planned obsolescence—goods had a predetermined lifecycle, and there was no real option to repair them. The strategy drives users to discard their old products and purchase new ones. But the battery life on the old model is dwindling. From tractors to Tesla owners, the right to repair movement is gaining global traction.
What is the right to repair legislation across the globe?
Politicians, as well as consumers, also seem keen on the right to repair. Within the past two years, laws have been passed worldwide that empower people and reduce the environmental impact of waste.
The U.K. introduced a right to repair law in 2021, officially known as the Ecodesign for Energy-Related Products and Energy Information Regulations 2021. The legislation obliges manufacturers to make spare parts available to customers and third-party companies; however, they have two years to do so. It is designed to extend certain products' lifecycle by up to ten years.
But not everyone is satisfied as the law only covers dishwashers, washing machines, washer-dryers, refrigeration appliances, televisions, and electronic displays—although electronic displays do not include smartphones and laptops.
Currently, consumers in the E.U. do not have the right to repair unless their product is under a legal warranty. However, at the beginning of 2022, the European Commission made proposals that, if passed, could strengthen the right to repair legislation. Suggestions include:
- Ensuring that repair, rather than replacement, is prioritised
- Restarting the legal warranty period for products that have been repaired
- Providing a more extended legal warranty period
- Extending the legal warranty period for second-hand and refurbished products
Before this year, right-to-repair legislation varied by state. Florida and South Carolina, for example, focused on agriculture-related legislation, while California concentrated on medical equipment. However, Joe Biden, the U.S. President, has emphasised consumers' rights to fix the products they own.
In March 2022, a law was passed—known as the Fair Repair Act—requiring OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to provide the tools and documentation necessary for consumers and third parties to repair electronic equipment. Consumers can now fix their vehicles, electronic devices, and agriculture equipment.
Who opposes (and who champions) the right to repair?
Unsurprisingly, the usual suspects have been spending their time and money lobbying against the right to repair legislation—but let's focus on the positive. After a brief spell of opposing legislation, Apple decided it would be more beneficial to join the right to repair movement rather than fight it.
The former champion of protectionism and disposable devices announced—not quite the right to repair—but its new 'self-service repair' option. From 2022, the service is only available for the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 lineups and iPhone SE (3rd generation) in the U.S., but the scheme is being rolled out internationally over the year. Apple parts, tools, and manuals will be available to help repair devices. The behemoth's U-turn is significant as history has shown that where Apple goes, other companies tend to follow.
However, some companies have been advocating for the right to repair long before Apple.
Framework designs consumer electronics that can be repaired, customised, and upgraded. It claims that 'consumer electronics is broken'; therefore, its mission is to tackle e-waste, improve recyclability, and make products last longer.
If a screen, button, or connector is broken, Framework allows you to fix it yourself. It has designed products that can easily be taken apart and provides the consumer with the necessary tools and instructions. The company is trying to fight the stereotype that fixable products are heavy and ugly. It believes that by giving customers a choice, the possibility to customise, and the chance to upgrade, it can challenge the conventional consumer electronics market and contribute to sustainability.
Fairphone is what it says it is: a phone that tries to be fair. The company acknowledges that making mobile phones is extractive and negatively affects communities across the world. Therefore, it tries to use as many recyclable materials as possible and ensure that the communities involved in the process are not negatively affected.
Fairphone believes that sustainable products are built to be fixed and highlights that replacing individual broken parts on a phone rather than the whole unit has a lesser effect on the environment. It provides customers with instructions and tools to make their products last.
ifixit is an online repair and advice service showing customers how to fix a range of electronic devices. Its manifesto is that repairing items saves money, empowers people, and contributes to sustainability.
The website sells tools, parts, fix kits, and repair guides, so consumers do not have to throw away their devices. It also rates a wide range of products for their 'fixability', allowing consumers to purchase products with a long lifecycle consciously.
Who will benefit from the right to repair?
The right to repair has the potential to benefit everyone—even the companies currently opposing it and designing products with a finite lifespan. Building products to last may encourage them to reconsider traditional ownership and move towards subscription models, which could offer them a constant revenue stream. Also, incorporating software into products could provide data to make them more long-lasting and craft a more effective marketing strategy.
Two vital sectors that will also benefit from more robust right to repair legislation are farming and medicine.
Modern tractors are connected to the internet and can only be fixed by the manufacturers using special diagnostic software and tools. If tractors malfunction, they need to be mended immediately onsite to ensure crops are harvested at the right moment. Sending them to the manufacturer and waiting for a timeslot could ruin a harvest, damage a farmer's livelihood, and increase the price of food.
The right to repair also has significant implications for medical technology. Medical device manufacturers often do not provide the training, manuals, and software necessary for technicians to make repairs on devices, including ventilators, defibrillators, and anaesthesia machines in hospitals. This increases the cost of operating the machines, but it also negatively impacts patients—operations are sometimes cancelled if there is a lack of functioning equipment.
Technology is about empowering people. Even Apple said that ‘Technology is most powerful when it empowers everyone’. Well, the time has come for everyone to be empowered. Manufacturers only offering expensive repairs through authorised retailers is not very empowering; it’s not good for the planet, and it’s morally dubious. If you own a product, you should be free to do what you want with it—including fixing it.
Although manufacturers have generally been slow to plug into the right to repair movement, they understand that joining it will most probably be beneficial in the long term. Consumers are ever-more concerned with environmental issues, so astute manufacturers will be getting their fix on rather than getting in a fix.