The UK government last week introduced new legislation which obliges manufacturers to make spare parts available to consumers so appliances can be fixed.

The so called ‘right to repair’ law means that appliances such as fridges, washing machines and electronics should last longer (up to 10 years) and be cheaper to run under the new rules.

Repairing existing technology and household goods has been an issue for many decades, not helped by resistance from certain manufacturers.

But pressure has resulted in some changes. In August 2019 Apple confirmed it would, for the first time ever, supply genuine parts to independent repair shops. Yet that doesn’t mean its official position on the matter has changed much.

Right to Repair

Bur amid the UK’s right to repair move, there is growing signs that Europe and the United States could follow suit.

The European Parliament recently voted in favour of establishing stronger “right to repair” laws that will ensure that goods can be repaired for up to 10 years, in order to to reduce electrical waste.

And according to the BBC, US President Joe Biden is soon expected to sign an executive order asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to draw up rules on the repair of farming equipment.

It would give farmers “the right to repair their own equipment how they like”, the president’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, was quoted as saying.

And there is an expectation that the rules could go further and take in consumer electronic devices such as phones or game consoles.

In the US, tractor manufacturer John Deere is among those who opposed the idea, saying it posed a safety risk.

It has also been opposed by technology giants such as Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, which impose limits on who can repair phones and game consoles and say independent repair could affect the security and safety of devices.

Repair supporters

But the BBC noted that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has issued a passionate endorsement of the right-to-repair movement, despite the company’s opposition.

Yet some of the movement’s biggest supporters are worried the British move does not go far enough.

“The right to repair legislation will be welcomed by many as a significant step forwards in the transition towards a circular economy,” noted Antony Bourne, SVP – Industries at IFS, an enterprise software provider

“But, given the very limited pool of goods covered by the law – and the notable absence of high-tech goods whose planned obsolescence has plagued consumers and fuelled multiple lawsuits – there is clearly still a considerable way to go,” said Bourne. “Further government support is also needed to incentivise the transition for businesses, and encourage manufacturers to plan for a more circular resources model in the design phase.”

“Where the legislation will have the greatest impact – at least in the short term – is in transforming the relationship between manufacturers and consumers,” said Bourne. “Right to repair will pave the way for a new kind of business model for manufacturers, in which they focus on selling outcomes or services rather than products.”

“By providing consumers with a service after the initial transaction, manufacturers have scope to build a longer-term relationship with customers that extends far beyond the initial transaction – for example, offering regular servicing, insurance or additional capabilities,” said Bourne.

“This not only benefits the customer, but provides manufacturers with scope to grow their business,” he concluded. “While the ruling will be viewed as a step-change for consumer rights advocacy in the UK and Europe, it should therefore also be seen as a pivotal moment for manufacturers and how they engage with consumers.”

Lengthy battle

Supporters of the new legislation say the right to repair laws will help reduce energy and household bills, as well as reduce the need for new materials.

It comes after years of complaints from consumers that goods are nowadays have a limited lifespan, and are often more expensive to repair than simply purchasing a new piece of equipment.

Some goods at best are highly difficult to repair, or indeed cannot be repaired in the home at all.

And to show that this is not a new problem, in 2010 repair firm Comtek launched a petition, claiming that manufacturers were killing the repair business to drive new sales.

That petition 11 years ago urged the government to abolish value-added tax (VAT) on IT repairs, as a way to encourage users to get most value out of their IT, and reduce the country’s carbon footprint.

And the consequences of growing amount of old equipment can be serious.

For years developing nations have been nothing more than dumping grounds for the western world’s toxic electrical waste, putting local children at serious risk of brain and kidney damage, respiratory illness, developmental and behavioural disorders, and even cancer.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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