How the Right to Repair is defining the future of the tech industry

After years of advocacy, the Right to Repair has finally shifted from concept and movement to legal obligation in the EU. Back Market’s head of public affairs Marie Castelli explores what this will mean for the producers and consumers of technology.

How the Right to Repair is defining the future of the tech industry

At the beginning of February, the EU agreed on a new law that will equip consumers with the right to repair their tech devices, even after the devices’ warranty periods end, incentivising consumers to fix over discarding.

The new ‘Right to Repair’ law supports independent repair, introducing rules for keeping prices for original parts reasonable. It also bans software practices that prevent independent repair and the use of compatible and reused spare parts. This not only reduces costs for the consumer, but also potential harm to the environment as a result of production and e-waste.

Despite publicity around the ‘Right to Repair’ movement, the web of legislation is typically complex. Right to Repair laws often apply only to specific categories of product and even specific types of repair. They can also differ from country to country, and even from state to state in the US. This can make it difficult for people and businesses to understand how the laws apply to them.

The movement will define the future of the technology industry, so it’s important to understand its progress, challenges, and future aims to understand how it could affect your business.

What is ‘Right to Repair’?

The Right to Repair movement seeks to make the repair of tech devices more accessible, affordable, and mainstream. Existing structures supported by the technology industry are often unsustainable in that they promote the purchase of new devices and disincentive their repair. This puts up barriers to the creation of a circular economy, which would help to reduce the enormous mass of e-waste disposed of every year. In the UK, this amounts to about two million tonnes, and at the moment, the proportion that is recycled is relatively small.

Right to Repair promotes the repair of devices over their disposal. This increases their lifespans and makes it easier for relevant stakeholders to reuse their parts, which might otherwise be lost to landfill.

It also reduces the cost of technology for people who might struggle to afford new devices when their existing ones stop functioning properly. In Europe, the organisation Right to Repair Europe is the main advocacy group for this movement. It represents over 130 different stakeholder organisations by performing research, proposing new policies, and campaigning for more effective measures.

Over the past few years, governments at regional, state, and supra-national levels have introduced a wave of legislation that has forced radical changes in the way that technology companies operate. In the USA, several states now require manufacturers to make appropriate repair tools, parts, and software available to consumers for up to seven years after production.

Within the EU, manufacturers have to abide by a universal compatibility scheme for common chargers, which is why the latest iPhones now have USB-C ports instead of the older ‘lightning’ slots.

What are the challenges facing the Right to Repair movement?

The response to this movement has been mixed, with some business backlash. While the right to repair devices undoubtedly benefits the consumer and environment, it also forces technology companies to change their operations in ways that they may deem less profitable. Many technology companies rely on ‘planned obsolescence’, the practice of giving devices what are essentially ‘expiry dates’, at which point they no longer function correctly. This practice encourages consumers to buy new devices when their existing ones no longer work so well.

Technology companies may also engage in practices that actively prevent consumers and other organisations from repairing old or broken devices. The new EU law agreed upon recently aims to ban the practice of ‘parts pairing’ – a method that uses special digital signatures to render third-party parts incompatible with their devices. Parts pairing makes it a lot harder, and in some cases impossible, for third parties to repair devices with new parts.

As a result, many technology companies have opposed the introduction of Right to Repair laws. While Google has supported the law as ‘an inclusive compromise’, Apple has refused to take part in the process and tried to resist a part pairing restriction in Oregon, despite supporting a similar law introduced recently in California. Right to Repair advocates claim that this is due to a specific policy that would prevent the practice of parts pairing. It’s a slow uphill push that some technology companies are seeking to stall at all costs.

How will Right to Repair shape the future of the tech industry?

Despite the significant challenge posed by big technology companies, recent successes suggest that governments support the essential premise of Right to Repair. As part of the new EU legislation, the European Commission will introduce an online platform to list repair and ‘buy-back’ solutions in member states with comparisons of their costs. This will increase the visibility of the options available to businesses and consumers and drive prices down by clarifying the expense. It has also encouraged Member States to introduce financial incentives to encourage more people to repair their devices.

There’s still significant progress to be made, though. As it stands, Right to Repair laws only apply to specific categories of devices. The UK’s Right to Repair law, for example, only applies to dishwashers, washing machines, washer-dryers, refrigeration appliances, televisions, and electronic displays – not the internal components of smartphones and laptops.

The Right to Repair movement has played out so far like a lesson in Darwinian evolution. As legislation steps up on one side, technology companies develop new methods of working their way around it soon after.

But the popular solution will win the day. According to Eurobarometer, 77% of EU consumers would rather repair their devices than buy replacements. Manufacturers will inevitably need to design their devices to last longer and be easier to repair. The likelihood is that we’ll go back to a modular system where batteries and other parts can be easily replaced by consumers, as it used to be with early smartphones. It’s just a matter of time.

Marie Castelli is the head of public affairs at Back Market

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