Sustainability should start with repairability
Nathan Proctor is director of the Right to Repair Campaign for U.S. PIRG, an advocacy organization.
There’s been an increasing amount of attention paid to making technology more sustainable, but the first step must be repairability. Being able to properly service our gadgets and extend their lifespans reduces waste, preserves natural resources, and saves consumers money. But we’ve seen a steady trend in recent years of major tech manufacturers refusing to sell spare parts, hoarding relevant documentation, and using software locks to prevent third-party repairs.
In order to defend repair for the future, a coalition of policy advocates like myself — tinkerers, fixers, DIYers, technicians, STEM educators, and consumers — have pushed “Right to Repair” reforms, which require companies to give people what they need to fix their stuff.
Now a new push from advocates in the European Union may transform the face of gadget repair around the world. Manufacturers who have worked to oppose Right to Repair, like Microsoft and Apple, along with trade associations like the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), should be nervous.
In September, a new European Right to Repair coalition, Repair.eu, launched at FixFest in Berlin. The group was formed with support from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), the Restart Project, ECOS, iFixit Europe, and Runder Tisch Reparatur (Repair Roundtable), among other allies.
I went to Berlin to help the coalition work through some initial strategy. Organizers hosted free community repair events, such as “Restart Parties,” where experts teach people how to fix their gadgets. It’s clear that people are getting fed up with unrepairable equipment.
In 2019, we saw that frustration on this side of the pond spur legislation in 20 states across the country, a formal workshop by the Federal Trade Commission, an inquiry by Congress, and high-profile endorsements from major national figures.
Defending repair restrictions in all of these forums certainly makes it more difficult for manufacturers to maintain the status quo. Not only that, but with each new venue for progress come new variations and new challenges. Manufacturers face the prospect of a global patchwork of state and national laws — and might eventually ask themselves if it wouldn’t just be easier to let people fix their stuff, rather than continuing to fight against these demands across the world.
Most of the state legislation proposed on Right to Repair doesn’t require manufacturers to design their products any differently — which would be expensive. In other words, the bills don’t demand that the iPhone look or function any differently: State reforms would simply require manufacturers like Apple to make the repair tools, parts, and software already used by their own authorized shops available to the rest of us.
There was one state bill with a manufacturing requirement, in Washington. This bill, which passed in committee with a strong bipartisan vote in February, would ban the practice of gluing batteries into devices. This would have required Microsoft to redesign their Surface line of products, or be unable to sell them in their home state. State insiders said that Microsoft sent senior leadership to directly intervene and stop the bill, agreeing to support a tax increase in exchange for stopping Right to Repair and another bill they opposed.
But while this kind of legislation hasn’t gained traction in the United States, things may be different abroad. The policy vehicle in Europe to go after issues of repairability is through the “EcoDesign Directive,” a standard across the EU that deals with the environmental impacts of various products. Repair advocates have expanded this directive to include durability and repair.
For example, new rules for heating and cooling systems (such as refrigerators) came out late last year, with requirements concerning the ease of disassembly. Some existing machines might need to be designed differently to meet the standard and be sold in the EU. The directive requires that certain components can be easily removed with commonly available tools, and without damaging the product.
Rules that push manufacturers to make it easier to take apart and service equipment are important. Increasingly, the difficulty and cost of disassembly makes repair impractical, and therefore increases the rate of replacement. For example, when companies introduce new screw designs, such as when Apple started using new Pentalobe screws in computers in 2009 and phones in 2011, it prevents people from opening devices until they buy new screwdrivers — which Apple, as it happens, doesn’t sell. Other devices are glued together in such a way that there is no way to open them up without damaging the product, such as the 2017 Microsoft Surface Pro, which iFixit dubbed a “glue-filled monstrosity.” Microsoft has shifted its product design since then, and the new Surface Laptop 3 focuses on repairability.
This week the European Commission approved new design standards for a set of appliances including refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, and televisions. Those standards require companies to make spare parts for up to 10 years. While the new standards only make parts available to “professional repairers,” the definition of which isn’t yet clear, the rules will address one of the key problems in appliance repair — lack of access to parts.
Smartphones account for some 14 million metric tons of carbon emissions for Europe, or roughly the annual pollution of Latvia.
Most manufacturer’s environmental initiatives try to downplay the inconvenient fact that if we want to reduce emissions to a sustainable level, we need to make and buy less stuff. Manufacturers make money, after all, by selling us new stuff.
If you peruse the environmental self-promotion pages on, say, Samsung’s website, you see a lot of talk about using renewable energy at facilities, recyclable packaging, product recycling, and the efficiency of their products while in use.
But the vast majority of the climate impact from a smartphone is from the extraction of natural resources and the original manufacturing. The European Right to Repair coalition debuted a new report in September which makes this case quite powerfully. EEB issued a study that found 72% of the climate impact from a smartphone is from manufacturing and recycling.
Among some of the excellent points raised by this new research:
- Smartphones account for some 14 million metric tons of carbon emissions for Europe, or roughly the annual pollution of Latvia.
- Extending the lifespan of European cell phones by one year would be like taking one million cars off the road.
- If you count the emissions from manufacturing as part of Europe’s carbon footprint, the EU would not have achieved any reduction in emissions since 1990.
Manufacturers would likely prefer that people praise their effective recycling programs while ignoring the biggest problems of their products: their incredibly short lifespans. After all, even the best recycling programs only recover a relatively small portion of the raw materials in a product, and are vastly less efficient than repair and reuse.
The truth is, manufacturers somehow convincing the public to accept the idea that we should buy a new smartphone every couple of years is absurd; absurd for consumers and dangerous for the planet. And the focus on that reality increases the pressure on manufacturers to deal with the most unsustainable parts of their model.
Right to Repair continues to grow, not only as a diverse set of regulatory campaigns, but as a kind of resistance to the throwaway culture. It can seem daunting to take on a project as big as our broken relationship with stuff, but as Europeans add their voices to the chorus, it also seems that progress is inevitable.
It’s also just common sense, whether we’re in Berlin or Boise. People should be able to fix their stuff — and tech manufacturers should let them.