In this modern age of consumer electronics, planned obsolescence has become all but accepted. It’s so customary to upgrade a unit every few years, or simply buy a new device when our old one breaks, that we hardly notice how few options we have when it comes to what is ostensibly the third option: repairing the devices we already have.
Single Use Devices
In many ways, consumers have been duped into this rigged state of affairs—all for the benefit of the manufacturers. As The Guardian put it: “Once we own a new device, we often can’t replace its batteries or take it to an independent repair shop for a simple fix. In fact, proprietary screws on Apple products often prevent us from opening Apple devices at all. It’s standard practice for companies to plan obsolescence into their products — including by introducing software upgrades that aren’t compatible with existing hardware— and they simultaneously profit from the fact that the average laptop has a high likelihood of breaking within 3-4 years.”
A more recent damning report from Greenpeace found that it’s entirely possible to design with reparability in mind, it’s just a matter of will on the part of the tech brands. So far, most of them aren’t going out of their way to make things repairable for their consumers. “Of all the models assessed, we found a few best-in-class products, which demonstrate that designing for reparability is possible. On the other hand, a number of products from Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft are increasingly being designed in ways that make it difficult for users to fix, which shortens the lifespan of these devices and adds to growing stockpiles of e-waste.”
Rise of Resistance
While this has been the reality for some time now, there are some promising signs of pushback. Proponents are arguing that electronics manufacturers have been allowed to make repairing the devices they sell too difficult, thereby working against the interests of consumers and bolstering their own bottom lines. The resulting movement is called the “right to repair” movement, and according to The Economist it’s making waves across the Atlantic: “In America the movement has already managed to get relevant bills on the agenda of legislatures in a dozen states, including Nebraska. Across the Atlantic, the European Parliament recently passed a motion calling for regulation to force manufacturers to make their products more easily repairable.”
It’s likely that in order to make right to repair laws a reality, consumers will have to raise a ruckus in order to show that it’s a priority. After all, the manufacturing sector as a whole has a huge stake in keeping their designs and repair know-how proprietary. But the growing amount of stuff, waste, and upgrades in the world could reach a tipping point where consumers no longer want to continue buying a new phone every two years because the one they have allegedly can’t be fixed.
Taking it to the Top
In the US, there is already a lobby group called the Repair Association that encompasses repair shops, environmental, and charities who are arguing for “right to repair” laws to be passed at the state level. This kind of legislation would “require firms in all industries to provide consumers and independent repair shops with the same service documentation, tools and spare parts that they make available to authorised service providers.” The hope is that this would open up the floodgates for consumers to see the benefits of repairing rather purchasing new products.
While this may sound like a long shot, there is in fact precedent. For example, “the car industry after Massachusetts in 2012 passed a right-to-repair law for cars that led to a national memorandum of understanding between carmakers and repair shops.”