Consumer “Right to Repair” – Part 3 – Learning from other Countries

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Source: repair.eu

Ed: In Part 2, Colin looked at how we have been enveloped in a throwaway disposable consumer market, with a few examples of the impact of the new legislation and its imposed limitations on the consumer. In this final part of the series, Colin examines how one EU country has adopted the Eco-Design Directive and how the Repair Café Movement has grown; he highlights recent e-waste and encouraging legislation in the USA.

Who Leads The Way?

Should we in the UK have the same expectations as the French consumer? As early as 2019, the French government adopted a law regulating the mandatory display of clear information for consumers on the repairability of electrical and electronic equipment. As stated by the European Eco-Design Directive.

Since 1 January 2021, France is the first country in Europe to have implemented a “Repairability Index” on manufacturers of electronic and electrical devices i.e. Smartphones, Laptops, Televisions, Washing machines and Lawnmowers etc.  The list of products is extensive.

The objective of the “index” is to encourage consumers to choose more repairable products, whilst indirectly encouraging manufacturers to improve the repairability and durability of their new products, by extending the products working life for a minimum of 10 years. That’s a smart but very subtle move!!

While this index is a key milestone for the Right to Repair in Europe, it isn’t without limitations. It is still easy to obtain a good grade, manufacturers can still self-declare scores and there are no sanctions until 2022.  It comes with challenges which are important to acknowledge and discuss.

Regardless of these limitations, the impact and the changes it has brought for the benefit of the consumer let alone our planet are significant. Such a simple, common sense approach is already providing major benefits for French consumers. Sadly this kind of approach is not what the UK Government is thinking about, let alone adopting.

The Repair Café Movement

The Repair Café idea came from Martine Postma in Amsterdam in 2007, who in 2011 went on to create the Repair Cafe International Foundation and has since grown to a staggering 2,150 Repair Cafés around the world with 142 in the UK. Other volunteer repair groups go under various titles such as, iFix-It, Repair.EU, The Restart Project and Repair & Share.

Hackney Fixers – Source: Mark A Phillips The Restart Project

As a organiser and volunteer for the Cirencester Repair Café we take up the challenge to try to find ways of repairing many household items, giving them an extended working life wherever possible.

The majority of repairs bought to us are electrical and electronic devices, making up nearly 70% of monthly repairs. Our repair success rate is pretty good, at an average of 73%. The downside are those items that we can’t repair because we are denied access to replacement parts, service manuals, schematics, technical support, or worse, intentionally designed by the manufacturer never to be repaired or serviced once assembled. The number of these seems to be growing exponentially every year, a clear example of how we the consumer have let manufacturers dictate our purchasing habits.

As a member of the Repair Cafe International Foundation we regularly submit the weight of items we repair or can’t repair. Data is collated across European repair café’s to work out how much CO2 is either saved from or sent to landfill, but more positively how much is recycled and repurposed, avoiding landfill.

All Repair Café groups are potentially under threat of being closed down as under the current legislation manufacturers will decide if volunteer repair groups are to have access to replacement parts at reasonable cost. The UK legislation has been so successfully manipulated by the multinational manufacturers in their favour, that it will severely restrict what these groups can actually do in the future.   

Remember the example I used in Part 2 of the humble washing machine, for which spare parts for new products  will only be available to a ‘professional’ repairer?  If that really is the case (the legislation is still not fully public), then indirectly or deliberately, the manufacturers have been handed a set of laws that would severely limit what we can repair, or worse force our Repair Cafés to close down. Does the consumer benefit from this? No! In fact the consumer looses a highly valuable, cost effective service, simply because the current legislation is not for the consumer nor does it protect the volunteer repair groups. 

Admittedly the UK Government is being heavily lobbied by manufacturers who want to sell new products and spare parts at a premium price, limit access to service manuals, build in obsolescence and create expensive professional registered service agencies. Manufacturers naturally want to make the substantial profits their business model has delivered for many, many decades.    

However the Government strategy is also reflecting what we as consumers want. EU research in 2019 conducted into consumer habits and attitudes showed that we were changing out their mobile phone, tablet or PC before its minimum working ‘life span’ is reached. This tendency is surprisingly higher in the UK than in any EU country. 81% of UK consumers sampled would sooner change to the next and latest generation within two years, than keep their phone until it had achieved its minimum technical lifespan, estimated at 4.7 years.   

Today in all of Europe including the UK, there are 300 million mobile phones in operation. How many of them are changed out for the greatest and latest gizmo model? The current one still works, but ends up being disposed of in landfill. The impact on increased carbon emissions during manufacture and then in e-waste is mind boggling. But why do we do it?

What can we change? And do we really want to change?

If we want to change the direction these policies are taking us, then in my view we need to make some big changes.

We as consumers have to change our mindset and buying habits now and for the longer term, keeping our products for longer. If they go wrong, get them fixed. Don’t dump them because the manufacturer makes the replacement parts too expensive or the design stops you changing something as simple as the battery in your smartphone.

We need the UK Government to provide forward thinking, stimulating and comprehensive eco- design policies. We need to move away from the culture of a disposable throw away society. At the same time we need to create the opportunity and the commercial and competitive environment for manufacturers to benefit from a design strategy that gives their products a minimum working life of 10 years.   

Manufacturers have a responsibility to ensure their products are designed to be maintained, serviced and provide technical support to all services agencies and volunteer groups fixing faulty products.

We need legislation that protects the independent service engineer and volunteer repair groups, and gives them full access to spare parts, schematics and service manuals. If it can be fixed, why not let us do it for the good of our society?

As consumers we generate the vast amounts of e-waste that goes to landfill, driven and encouraged by clever, complex marketing strategies employed by the manufacturers and global tech’ giants. A recent ITV News report demonstrated how serious the e-waste disposable issue really is. Amazon destroying millions of items of unsold stock in one of its UK warehouses every year. Watch the video. It’s so ‘mind numbing’ even Boris Johnson and the Business Secretary , Kwasi Kwarteng who is responsible for the “Right to Repair” legislation, isn’t full aware of Amazons policy on destroying brand new products. Watch the report here.

Consumers have a powerful set of tools at our disposal that can force the manufacturers to change their ways. For instance we can purchase other longer life products that meet our needs. Or we can stop buying price-inflated products that do not have a guaranteed 5 or 10 year minimum working life.  We can create a more competitive market place where the focus is on consumer choice, not the manufacturers or governments dictate.

Meanwhile in America

In the USA it is gaining momentum with consumers that, if a manufacturers ‘new’ product does not have a guaranteed 5 to 10 year working life, then the manufacturer must bear the total cost of disposing of it into landfill or get it fixed at cost. Would such a proposal gain consumer support here in the UK? Who knows? Maybe we should lead the way on such a simple but highly effective idea?  But wait, is our government already too late to the party!

Only this week, a landmark President Biden Executive Order urges action against repair restrictions being imposed by giant tech’ companies against the consumer.  President Joe Biden told the Federal Trade Commission to issue rules against “anti-competitive restrictions on using independent repair shops or doing DIY repairs“.  Enforcing legislation that drives forward the consumers Right To Repair. 

Over the past two decades global technology giants and manufacturers have worked hard to find ways to design-in obsolescence, short ‘working life’, whilst dictating to the consumer the extent to which the products we purchase can be serviced or even repaired. Is this a strategy we the consumer are prepared to allow to continue for future generations of consumers and consequently our planet to endure?

In Summary

In my three part series I have shown how global tech’ giants and manufacturing companies have persuaded consumers to accept that their products have a short working life and we need to replace them with the latest gizmo. We must educate ourselves to realise that we don’t need to replace a product which still works well. Our environment and our society will benefit from this.
But we need broad coverage legislation providing the consumer with a comprehensive, well thought through, legal “Right to Repair”?

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