Big Tech Comes Under Fire Over Right to Repair
It's happened to most of us at some point. We love our (insert beloved gadget), but one day a part of it malfunctions. We try to get it fixed at the only place that can fix it—an authorized agent—but it turns out that fixing it costs almost as much as buying a new one.
So we predictably buy a new gadget and leave the old one to sit in a drawer (because we can't quite bring ourselves to throw it away), just in case we'll find a cheaper way of fixing it one day. That day invariably never comes.
As you probably suspect, your gadget was intentionally designed in such a way so as to be hard to fix. In order to boost their sales, manufacturers of products as diverse as white goods and smartphones have been making them increasingly difficult to repair or designing them for shorter lifespans than is technically possible.
Remember the days when you could actually fix the electronics you owned? Nowadays, many products can only be fixed by authorized agents at exorbitant, arbitrary costs and even then only for as long as the warranty lasts. After those first few years, your electronics are often as good as trash if they break.
Designed to fail
Planned obsolescence—the practice of intentionally designing products that are hard to repair or that break before their time—may boost corporate profits, but it is evidently wasteful, harmful for the environment, and costly for consumers.
Our increasing consumption of electronics, coupled with their shorter lifespans are beginning to take a toll on the environment. E-waste—also known as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE)—is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world and accounts for 70% of all the toxic waste in American landfills.
As much as 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste was generated globally in 2016—that's the equivalent of the added weight of about half a billion people—only a fifth of which was recycled through take-back systems, a UN University study found.
Even the little that is recycled is problematic because most wealthy nations don't have national recycling systems in place that can handle all the WEEE their citizens generate. As such, some of the "recycled" e-waste ends up being shipped to and dumped in developing countries, where it poisons the soil and groundwater and affects public health.
Compounding to the problem is the fact that electric and electronic waste is more challenging to handle compared to other waste streams. The high number of toxic chemicals in it (lead, mercury, rare-earth minerals, precious metals), the big size of some electrical products, such as washing machines and refrigerators, and the need for a specialized workforce to dismantle and/or refurbish them make such waste difficult to treat.
Legislators taking manufacturers to task
The wind of change is blowing through electronics manufacturing, though, thanks to a worldwide movement dubbed "the right to repair". Legislators and consumers are increasingly pressuring manufacturers to mend their ways through legislation, boycotts, repair movements, negative marketing, and by setting up alternative lines of products made to last.
In a recent move, on October 1, the European Commission announced that it would require manufacturers to ensure that electric and electronic goods are easier to repair and more recyclable.
The ground-breaking legislation is part of the EU's Ecodesign Directive and supports its efforts to promote the circular economy. By forcing manufacturers to provide spare parts for their products for up to ten years and to make appliances last longer and be more energy-efficient, the bloc believes that it will deliver final energy savings to the tune of 167 TWh by 2030.
This is the equivalent of the annual energy consumption of Denmark and translates into savings of 46 million tons of CO2 equivalent, it said in a press release. The new legislation will also positively impact consumers' bottom line: €150 ($164) in annual savings per household, European legislators estimated.
The bill only concerns ten types of home appliances, crucially failing to account for other electronic products that break frequently, such as smartphones. But that doesn't mean that manufacturers of consumer electronics are getting away with it.
In France and Italy, two of the countries with the highest per capita generation of e-waste in the world, the courts and competition authorities have stepped in to target gadgets that are designed to fail.
In October 2018, Italian competition authorities fined Apple €10 million ($11 million) and Samsung €5 million($5.5 million) for intentionally slowing down older models of their smartphones using software upgrades.
The tech giants denied the charges, but their claims are unconvincing given how hard they've been fighting right to repair bills elsewhere.
Meanwhile, in France, where the global crusade against planned obsolescence started a decade ago, prosecutors have launched an investigation following claims that Apple intentionally slowed down some models of its iPhone. And, across the Atlantic, 20 U.S. states have introduced right to repair bills in recent years.
On both sides of the Atlantic, consumers are requesting that manufacturers grant them access to repair kits and spare parts so they can fix their own products. But they have been doing more to tackle planned obsolescence than merely waiting for Big Tech to loosen its grip on its repair monopoly.
Having started in Amsterdam in 2009, the global repair cafe network now has 1,930 centers around the world, where consumers can take their broken products to fix them.
French consumers went so far so as to set up an association—HOP—that fights planned obsolescence through investigations of manufacturers, lobbying, and research.
Meanwhile, a wave of startups like L'Increvable and Fairphone is working on offering consumers alternatives like washing machines that last a lifetime and modular smartphones that can be easily fixed if they break.
Most importantly, consumers have realized that their wallet is the ultimate weapon in the fight against planned obsolescence. This has led to the emergence of initiatives like I-buycott, a platform where users can come together to boycott those brands or producers that engage in unsustainable and unethical practices.
Little more than window dressing from Big Tech
That planned obsolescence is bad for marketing has not been lost on appliance manufacturers and tech companies. But, in their efforts to polish their image, they've stopped short of actually granting consumers the right to repair their own products.
Take Apple's case, for example. The company has introduced a trade-in program offering fairly generous store credits to those who turn in their used Apple products. It's even designed its own recycling robot, Daisy, to disassemble and recycle used iPhones.
It has vowed to use more recycled aluminium and other resources in the manufacturing of its new products and to encourage its suppliers to also use renewable energy and recycled raw materials.
In August 2019, in reaction to the recent storm of right to repair legislation, it introduced a program that will allow independent repair shops to have access to the same resources—tools, parts, repair manuals, training, and diagnostics—as its authorized service providers, so long as they have an Apple-certified person on staff.
But all of this amounts to little more than window dressing. Behind closed doors, Apple has actively lobbied to oppose right to repair legislation in different jurisdictions, citing the same old chestnut: safety and privacy concerns. Consumers could hurt themselves trying to fix their products, its lobbyists have claimed. And the right to repair would incentivize "bad actors, criminals, and hackers".
Apple is using every trick in the book: promising to become ever more sustainable and even allowing third parties access to its resources, just to get away with not enabling the actual consumers to repair their own Apple products.
The message is that the company is willing to make your goods more environmentally friendly, to take the broken ones back, giving you some rebates in exchange, and even to allow independent repair shops access to its parts and toolkits. But it will stop short of actually allowing you to fix your iPhone.
And this is a real problem, as iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens recently explained to Gizmodo. “I would argue that just for the future of technology and mankind, it’s essential that we have control of our products [...]"
Not only are manufacturers hurting the environment and costing consumers money by refusing to let them fix their own products. But in so doing, "one thing that I really worry about is, if we have a world where no one can tinker with their things, we’re not going to be training up the engineers of tomorrow,” Wiens concluded.