In July, U.S. president Joe Biden issued executive order 14036, which among other things urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to address "unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items." That order also tasked the Secretary of Commerce to report on "a plan for avoiding contract terms in procurement agreements that make it challenging or impossible for the Department of Defense or service members to repair their own equipment, particularly in the field."
The notion of soldiers at some far-flung military base unable to fix critical gear because the manufacturer insists that it be sent back to an authorized repair facility is troubling to say the least. So it's no wonder that the FTC quickly responded by voting unanimously to reinvigorate its efforts to enforce existing right-to-repair legislation, in line with the stance the agency took in May when it issued a report on the topic, "Nixing the Fix."
Those moves alone make 2021 a promising year for those wishing to see expansion of the right to repair. But the gains are in fact broader, in particular because the very first right-to-repair regulations for electrical and electronic appliances took effect in Europe earlier this year. While there's still a long way to go, advocates there say, European thinking on the topic appears years ahead of that in the United States.
The European Commission's new Ecodesign Measures, which went into effect in March, grew out of earlier work to improve the energy efficiency of various appliances. In the past, such efforts considered only the energy consumed during operation. But now, Europe's regulators are also considering the energy used in fabrication. They do that indirectly, by encouraging manufacturers to make products more durable and easier to repair.
77 Percent of Europeans prefer fixing devices over buying new*
Specifically, Europe's new regulations demand that manufacturers of washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, and displays (including televisions) make spare parts and repair documentation available to professional third-party repairers, preventing the kind of repair monopolies that manufacturers might otherwise maintain. Manufacturers must be able to supply these repairers with spare parts within 15 business days, and depending on the class of product and type of part, must continue to offer such support for 7 to 10 years. Matching rules went into effect in the United Kingdom at the start of July.
"This is a great first step," says Ugo Vallauri, cofounder and policy lead at the Restart Project, a London-based charity. The Restart Project aims to help people "fix their relationship with electronics," says Vallauri, "making sure they get repaired whenever something goes wrong as opposed to contributing them to the growing mountain of e-waste." But Vallauri is quick also to point out significant limitations in Europe's new measures. "They were labeled as right-to-repair regulation, which we think is extremely exaggerated."
For one, the new repair-friendly rules are restricted to a small set of product types. "When you ask anyone about the right to repair, it's not that they are interested in it for their washing machine but not for their tablet or their coffee maker—people want everything to be a lot more repairable than it is now," says Vallauri, who further notes that the regulations apply only to new products. So they won't help with a broken gizmo that you already own.
And while the new regulations ensure that professional repairers have access to a wide variety of spare parts, individuals aren't afforded the same rights. What's more, Vallauri warns, a manufacturer could satisfy the new regulations by making replacement parts available to professional repairers at prohibitively high costs or by bundling spares into expensive subassemblies rather than allowing just the one component that wears out to get replaced. In this way, a manufacturer could satisfy the letter of the new law without respecting its spirit.
“People want everything to be a lot more repairable than it is now." —Ugo Vallauri, the Restart Project
Organizers of the Restart Project and allied groups in Europe would like regulators to address these shortcomings. They'd also like to see expanded a strategy that began this year in France—the requirement that products be labeled with a repairability index.
"The principle is very simple," says Ronan Groussier, Paris-based spokesperson for Halte à l'Obsolescence Programmée (Stop Planned Obsolescence). He explains that each covered product—which currently includes smartphones, laptops, washing machines, televisions, and lawn mowers—is given a score that ranges from 1 to 10. Scores are based on five elements: the availability of repair documentation, the availability of spare parts, the cost of those spare parts, the ease of disassembly, and a fifth criterion that varies with the type of product. In 2024, this scheme is slated to evolve into one that scores the overall durability of products, repairability being one component.
The current law demands that the seller display the repairability score close to the price, with the index printed in a font that is just as large as the one showing how much the thing costs. So it's hard to ignore. And this numeric score is accompanied by a color code, which ranges from red to green.
Have such scores been effective? Groussier thinks it's too early really to tell. His organization plans soon, though, to survey French consumers to find out. But he believes there are clear signs already that these scores have at least influenced manufacturers. "Some brands have decided to release some very detailed documentation," says Groussier. "They wouldn't have done that without the index."
27 U.S. states considering right-to-repair bills in 2021**
So far, manufacturers calculate repairability indices for their products without oversight. But starting next year, government authorities in France will begin spot-checking whether these self-assigned scores are reasonable.
And next year France will take yet another huge step to encourage people to have their gizmos fixed rather than throw them out—by developing a fund that will subsidize repairs. "When you go to a repair shop, when you pay your bill, you'll have a discount, thanks to this fund," says Groussier. Subsidizing repairs in this way addresses the economic reality that device repair, unlike manufacture, isn't automated and hence tends to be expensive compared with replacement—or at least that's very often the case if you can't perform the repair yourself.
The new fund will be part of existing EPR ( Extended Producer Responsibility) schemes that are widely in place in Europe. Where applicable, manufacturers already have to contribute a fraction of the purchase price to cover disposal costs for their products. Soon in France, part of such up-front fees will be directed toward a new repair fund, though exactly how much is still being worked out.
Manufacturers, of course, might grouse at paying anything to this fund. "We don't want the contribution to be huge—we just want it to be fair," says Groussier. "We think it's a solution to fight waste by making the life span of products longer."
- Why We Must Fight for the Right to Repair Our Electronics - IEEE ... ›
- What the Right To Repair Movement Gets Wrong - IEEE Spectrum ›
- Did Apple Really Fix Its DIY Repair Stance? ›
David Schneider is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His beat focuses on computing, and he contributes frequently to Spectrum's Hands On column. He holds a bachelor's degree in geology from Yale, a master's in engineering from UC Berkeley, and a doctorate in geology from Columbia.