The Right-to-Repair movement has been gaining traction across the US and Europe. The movement would include legislation allowing equipment owners access to tools, parts, and diagnostic equipment for basic repairs without the need for a certified technician. In the US, President Biden and Federal Trade Commission seek updates to ease third-party repair restrictions with an executive order and a unanimous committee hearing vote in July 2021.
For this month’s Tech & Trade installment, let’s take a closer look at what it means to have the ability to repair products and the impacts this movement may have on global trade.
There are many items consumers often repair, such as automobiles and small appliances, but as the technology behind many goods becomes more sophisticated, so do the repairs. The technology in these products is more complex than ever, and if a consumer wants to make repairs, they are often denied the information, tools, or parts to do so, ultimately limiting the ability to extend the life of products or have choices in the repair process. Other issues on the Right-to-Repair movement revolve around software and design. Often, embedded software is unalterable or not customizable, and in some cases, products are created specifically not to accommodate any repairs. Right-to-Repair complaints are common with cell phones, and laptop repairs due to system locks and manufacturer updates preventing repairs and customization, a variety of other applications are impacted.
A closer-to-home example is the many tractors operated in ND and throughout the Midwest’s vast agricultural land; they have increasingly complex geographic navigation systems, engine controls, and so on. As time progresses, these tractors need repairs, and many manufacturers require a certified technician to make repairs and updates. This can be problematic for many farmers as certified repair professionals can be miles away, backed up with orders (especially during harvest season), and supplies of certified parts can fluctuate (as we have seen with the pandemic supply chain issues). By requiring certified professionals, farmers can have whole fields go to waste, or harvests will be subpar by the time the equipment can be fixed (FTC Votes Unanimously to Fight Restrictions on Right to Repair, 2021).
Manufacturers of many products from cellphones and laptops to household appliances and large farm equipment will be impacted by the shifts many countries are mandating around the ability to repair such devices. Complexities are vast, as manufacturers defend control over their software security, emission compliance, and overall machine performance from individuals looking to customize. Manufacturers also have safety concerns that equipment could be overridden to compromise operational safety (Goode, 2021). The quality of replacement parts and repairs from unauthorized distributors is of concern, many not going through rigorous testing or meeting the original standards of quality from the manufactures. Larger companies have banded together, stating that their intellectual property and trade secrets are also at risk as legislation passes for more transparency for repairs.
Globally, several countries have taken approaches to mitigate e-waste and work with manufacturers to balance these issues. The ability to access repair technologies would allow for reduced waste globally, minimize throw-away culture, and have a better market for refurbished goods like cell phones. Increasing reuse of items will reduce a significant amount of e-waste to align with a more “circular economy,” keeping resources in use rather than recycled or thrown away. The UK’s Circular Economic Action Plan introduced in 2020 outlines the Right-to-Repair directives (Tyler, 2021). Throwing away technology because it can’t be repaired is expensive and wasteful; these items are currently broken down and piece-mealed for recycling at a fraction of the cost. Exporting the broken down recycling is also a common practice. But, if repairs were more accessible, the UK estimates as many as 450,000 jobs could be added to the market, along with keeping tech and resources in the country (Harvey, 2021). The UK introduced right to repair rules in July 2021 to require manufactures to make spare parts available for personal devices, with a two-year grace period. The rules state that basic repairs with basic spare parts can be supplied to the consumers, but more complex repairs and parts will be provided only by professional repair people. The legislation, however, does not include all electronics. Laptops and smartphones have currently been excluded from the legislation passed in July.
The European Union has long been concerned with repairs and called for manufactures to reduce waste and make products more energy efficient. The repairability of devices now fits into the reduction of waste directive. Many suppliers in the EU must furnish replacement parts for devices for ten years to professional repair specialists for many household appliances.
France has created a repairability index. This database requires manufacturers selling devices in France to provide a repairability score base on a range of criteria. The goal of the index is to inform consumers, shift buying habits and expand the lifespan of otherwise finite product use. The overall database serves as a litmus test, says Wired magazine, to empower manufacturers, companies, and consumers to provide more reparable and sustainable devices (Stone, 2021).
Other countries with less rigorous standards for replacement parts are seen as dumping grounds for low-quality parts, expressing the need for more regulations around repairs in countries such as South Africa (Kessel, 2021).
The ability to repair small to large products is an impactful topic across the globe and will continue to change trade for many manufactures, software companies, and device producers. With more regulation placed on these types of products, trade will become increasingly complex. Many factors are involved, including empowering consumers’ choices, the economic impact for manufacturers and consumers, increasing reuse and recycling, and compliance. Much more will be seen as legislation is made across the globe with our increasing reliance on machinery and technology not only in trade but also in our everyday lives.
FTC Votes Unanimously to Fight Restrictions on Right to Repair. (2021, July). Retrieved from WNAX News: https://wnax.com/news/180081-ftc-votes-unanimously-to-fight-restrictions-on-right-to-repair/
Godwin, C. (2021, July 7). Right to Repair Movement Gains Power in US and Europe. Retrieved from BBC News: https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-57744091
Goode, L. (2021, July 21). The FTC Votes Unamously to Enforce Right to Repair. Retrieved from Wierd: https://www.wired.com/story/ftc-votes-to-enforce-right-to-repair/
Harvey, F. (2021, August 4). Repairing and Reusing Household Goods Could Create Thousands of Green Jobs Across the UK. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/aug/04/repairing-and-reusing-household-goods-could-create-thousands-of-green-jobs-across-the-uk
Kessel, S. (2021, August 13). CRA Guest Column: Right to Repair; An Industy Interepretation. Retrieved from Repairer Driven News: https://www.repairerdrivennews.com/2021/08/13/cra-guest-column-right-to-repair-an-industry-interpretation/
Klosowski, T. (2021, July 15). What You Should Know About Right to Repair. Retrieved from New York Times- Wirecutter: https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/blog/what-is-right-to-repair/
Stone, M. (2021, February 28). Why France’s New Tech ‘Repairability Index’ Is a Big Deal. Retrieved from Wired: 2021
The Right to Repair Movement. (2021, August 4). Retrieved from The Hindu: https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/right-to-repair-movement/article35722520.ece
Tyler, N. (2021, August 5). Right to Repair. Retrieved from New Electronics: https://www.newelectronics.co.uk/electronics-blogs/right-to-repair/239372/