By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Twenty US states have now teed up right to repair legislation, although no measure has been enacted so far.
Many consumers are annoyed to discover that although they may purchase an expensive electronics device, they either cannot repair it themselves or use a third party repair service, because of how manufacturers have designed the device itself, warranty restrictions, or lack of necessary equipment, parts, or diagnostic information. Ditto for farmers and farm equipment.
Yet support is building to mandate a right to repair, as I discussed earlier this year in Global Gains on Right to Repair. This would be welcome news for consumers, who would no longer be tethered to the original manufacturer of their electronics for repair. Consumers might choose then to opt for easier and cheaper repairs, rather than replacement. Farmers would likewise benefit.
Elizabeth Warren Endorses Right to Repair For Farm Tractors
Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren endorsed a right to repair for farm equipment, as one element in a March announcement of her comprehensive agricultural policy plan, Leveling the Playing Field for America’s Family Farmers,
For example, many farmers are forced to rely on authorized agents to repair their equipment. Companies have built diagnostic software into the equipment that prevents repairs without a code from an authorized agent. That leads to higher prices and costly delays.
That’s ridiculous. Farmers should be able to repair their own equipment or choose between multiple repair shops. That’s why I strongly support a national right-to-repair lawthat empowers farmers to repair their equipment without going to an authorized agent. The national right-to-repair law should require manufacturers of farm equipment to make diagnostic tools, manuals, and other repair-related resources available to any individual or business, not just their own dealerships and authorized agents. This will not only allow individuals to fix their own equipment — reducing delays — but it will also create competition among dealers and independent repair shops, bringing down prices overall. [Jerri-Lynn here: original emphasis.]
Warren’s plan would apply nationally, and if adopted, would force John Deere to change its business practices. This proposal is both smaller in scope than many state right to repair initiatives – as it’s limited to farm equipment only and doesn’t include consumer electronics – as well as broader – as it’s a national rather than a state-level measure.
Along with John Deere, Apple is a major opponent of right to repair initiatives, as are other electronics companies including Microsoft and Samsung.
Grey Lady Endorses Right to Repair
On Saturday, the New York Times editorial board endorsed a right to repair in It’s Your iPhone. Why Can’t You Fix It Yourself? Taking note of the Warren initiative, the editorial said her plan didn’t go far enough, and should include consumer electronics products rather than being restricted to farm equipment alone.
The NYT noted that it might not even be necessary to enact national legislation, given the number of pending state measures. The front-runner is a Minnesota bill, which is expected to reach the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives later this month.
Once one state enacts protections, manufacturers may decide to surrender completely – as they don’t want to follow one set of rules in some states, and others in others. Massachusetts enacted an auto repair law in 2012, and as the NYT recognized:
But solving the issue may not require national legislation. After Massachusetts passed its auto repair law in 2012, major carmakers agreed to nationalize those standards in a signed agreement with trade groups representing independent auto repair shops.
I point out that in the area of clean air regulation, California’s tough state emissions standards became the de facto national standard, as automakers didn’t want to produce separate product lines for different states (see my previous post for more on this issue, Trump Regulators and California on Collision Course on Rolling Back Fuel Efficiency Standards).
The situation here isn’t identical – what’s being discussed is repair, not the product specifications per se. Yet once manufacturers have to comply with right to repair requirements in one state, it may be difficult if not impossible to maintain their existing restrictive repair policies in others. Some consumers might very well opt to send their mobiles to states that enact a right to repair – e.g., Minnesota – for cheaper repair services rather than pay the manufacturer to repair the device closer to home. Or, as the NYT editorial notes, “Information and parts available in one state, after all, are effectively available in every state.”
In addition, the Federal Trade Commission is mulling the issue, and has scheduled a hearing in July on Nixing the Fix: A Workshop on Repair Restrictions. So there may very well be some national movement on this issue, in addition to the state proposals – regardless of what happens to the Warren proposal.
Apple Opposition, But Preparing for a Right to Repair?
Motherboard last month reported on leaked internal documents that suggest that Apple may be preparing for wider adoption of a right to repair, according to this report, Internal Documents Show Apple Is Capable of Implementing Right to Repair Legislation:
According to the presentation, titled “Apple Genuine Parts Repair” and dated April 2018, the company has begun to give some repair companies access to Apple diagnostic software, a wide variety of genuine Apple repair parts, repair training, and notably places no restrictions on the types of repairs that independent companies are allowed to do. The presentation notes that repair companies can “keep doing what you’re doing, with … Apple genuine parts, reliable parts supply, and Apple process and training.”
This is, broadly speaking, what right to repair activists have been asking state legislators to require companies to offer for years.
“This looks to me like a framework for complying with right to repair legislation,” Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit and a prominent member of the right to repair movement, told me on the phone. “Right now, they are only offering it to a few megachains, but it seems clear to me that it would be totally possible to comply with right to repair.”
Looking at this from a waste perspective, the specialty publication Waste Dive in a report headlined Is right to repair finally having a national moment? highlighted that support is building to adopt a right to repair. Repairing rather than replacing devices would reduce e-waste:
Consumer device manufacturers have been strongly opposed to the concept for years, but Apple’s internal presentation indicates an ability — if not necessarily a willingness — to comply if legislation passes. Scaling up from hand-picked repair shops and operations to any interested party would certainly be a challenge, but one that many say is worth undertaking. Apple has talked about closing the loop and recycling electronics before, announcing in April 2017 that it wants to eventually use only recycled material in its manufacturing — although the company did not set a timeline for that ambitious goal.
E-waste generation is growing quickly, and when electronics are not disposed of properly, they can damage the environment and cause risk to workers from fires or explosions. Without access to the right tools or diagnostics, however, it can be challenging to make the necessary changes to keep these devices in circulation or dismantle them for scrap. As a result, the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries has backed its own “right to reuse” policy.
E-waste is a huge global problem, with more than 400,000 mobile phones and 140,000 computers discarded every day, worldwide, according to this recent Electronics Weekly account, UK No.2 For E-Waste Per Head, with China and the US topping the list for e-waste generated.
In the US, 25% of that waste is “recycled” – or so it is claimed. But as this Forbes account Recycling Is Not The Answer To The E-Waste Crisis makes clear, just as was the case until recently with plastics and other recyclables, what that really means is that America’s “recycled” e-waste was shipped abroad for processing:
What most don’t realize is that many “recyclers” actually just ship most of the e-waste abroad where, instead of being recycled, usable parts are repurposed and minerals are extracted. That doesn’t sound terrible, except that it comes at an enormous cost to local populations. Methods used are almost always improper — in some places, for example, gold is recovered by bathing circuit boards in nitric and hydrochloric acid, poisoning waterways, and after, whatever is not used is dumped in the ground improperly anyway. The current rate of responsible e-waste recycling is at an abysmal 15.5% worldwide.
The root problem of course, is mass consumerism, combined with planned obsolescence and the short product cycle for consumer electronics. Over to Forbes again:
At the heart of the issue is a technology sector whose profits are driven by planned obsolescence. Until the industry finds a way to thrive without needlessly pumping out new electronics at the rate that it currently does — all the eco-design processes, recycling programs, and Liam-like innovations will remain symbolic at best, and sleight of hand, at worst.
Extending the life of devices is far more effective than relying on the recycling fairy for reducing the environmental impact of our collective tech addiction. Forbes again:
Only the extension of the life of the devices currently in circulation, through their maintenance, refurbishment, and reuse in one form or another, can have a meaningful effect on their environmental impact. Fighting for ease of repair — led by organizations like repair.org, or developing innovations such as the Fairphone are important pieces of the puzzle. Buying refurbished electronics in lieu of new is another.
What Is To Be Done?
Waste management, particularly hazardous waste disposal, is a huge global problem. And recycling is not much of a solution – especially how it is currently carried out. I am well aware that enacting a right to repair in specific US states or even nationally isn’t going to make this problem disappear. But it may reduce some of the scale of the problem – as well as having the added benefit of reducing the costs consumers must pay when their devices fail to get them up and running again.
US PIRG (US Public Interest Research Group) is coordinating action in support of state right to repair initiatives. So I include a link for readers who are interested in learning more about this issue and those efforts.