Why Taking Responsibility for Our Carbon Emissions Means Promoting the Right to Repair

Yves here. See? Generally speaking, taking good care of old things is sound for the environment (yes, gas guzzlers and smokin’ clunkers are an important exceptions). So get the word out about the Right to Repair.

By Janet Gunter, who works at The Restart Project. Originally published at openDemocracy

Using products for longer is one of the simplest actions we can take towards climate justice.

In our global system of production, consumption and premature disposal, using products for longer should be considered a pillar of global climate justice, and in an even broader sense, environmental justice.

Saturday 19 October 2019 marks the third International Repair Day, and the theme this year is “Repair for Future”.

As we chanted for climate justice last month in Berlin together with youth strikers and other Right to Repair campaigners, I finally started to perceive our repair activism for what it was: promoting one of the simplest actions we can take towards climate justice.

Subsequently, we learned in Sweden there is a movement called Köpskam, or “shame of buying new”. We learned about this movement via a famous Swedish 16 year old climate crisis revolutionary, who gets endlessly trolled by sad people telling her to go to China.

Whose Emissions

We find rich irony in this, because Greta Thunberg has done more than anybody to draw attention to a very important and often-ignored dimension of the climate crisis: how much of “China’s” carbon footprint is indeed ours.

It turns out the way we count carbon has everything to do with climate justice.

When Thunberg came to the UK parliament earlier this year, she talked about carbon accounting. She said “The UK is, however, very special. Not only for its mind-blowing historical carbon debt, but also for its current, very creative, carbon accounting.” She is referring in part to the emissions made to produce the stuff we import.

The Net Zero target adopted by the last UK government focuses on territorial emissions, that is, the emissions produced in the UK.

But what about consumption emissions? The UK imports considerable greenhouse gases emissions through the consumption of goods and services, however there are no legislated targets to limit these.

Many of these imported goods have really short lifespans, and some end up at our community repair events where we try to extend their lives. And around 80% of a small electronic device’s carbon footprint — over the whole of its lifecycle — is emitted before it even reaches UK shores.

While the high consumption-based emissions of the UK are highlighted in the latest Committee on Climate Change (CCC) report, there is no clear strategy for how — and by how much — the UK should reduce them. (It’s worth mentioning here that China is taking decarbonisation in its industrial sector really seriously.)

Here in the UK, the CCC hints that people in households can use products for longer, and fix them.

But what if, even with the best intentions in the world, we can’t use stuff for longer by fixing it? What if we don’t have access to spare parts, repair documentation, and what if these products are impossible to repair — by design?

Limiting our right to repair limits our ability to act for climate justice, to reduce our emissions that will hurt people elsewhere who never consumed or emitted like we did.

The True Cost of Materials

We must take responsibility for our emissions, wherever they occur. Likewise, we must take responsibility for the raw materials that are extracted for the stuff we buy.

We started The Restart Project after years working with communities on the sharp edge of our voracious appetite for resources: farmers having their fields seized for pine plantations used for paper production; communities whose common land is taken from them for mining.

The impacts of this mining are often invisible to us. Mining processes require a lot of environmental management and there is a high cost associated with this. If mining occurs in countries without rule of law, sound regulation and enforcement, risks arise. Use of acid and chemicals in mining processes can threaten the health of nearby communities.

A handful of valuable metals get recycled from our electronics, such as copper and gold. But the vast majority of what are deemed “critical” raw materials, those with a supply risk and those that are difficult to substitute, cannot be recycled effectively. Many have nearly insignificant rates of recycling. Recyclers are constantly playing catch-up to an ever-faster cycle of new products, new materials and new technologies –– having to invent new techniques and business models for processing dead devices.

What this means in practice is that demand for virgin critical raw materials continues to increase with every new product we buy.

Better Economies

As an organisation promoting longer-lasting products and repair, we constantly get asked in the media: “are you against growth?” and “are you trying to abolish capitalism?” — our answer is clear. The global system of production, consumption and disposal will radically change. Because it must.

As economist Thomas Piketty wrote just this week “We will have to construct new social, educational, fiscal and climate norms through democratic discussion”.

Slowing production and disposal of products will be a major shift, opening up new jobs for reuse, remanufacture and repair in economies that long stopped producing.

Some of us in these economies might need to get used to the idea of buying secondhand products. Instead of a £20 disposable toaster, what is wrong with a quality, repairable secondhand toaster of the same price, as long as we know it will carry on working for many years?

And yes, there is a question about what happens to manufacturing jobs elsewhere, if we are talking of global justice. But the hype cycle and obsessive model of consumption has severe and drastic consequences for workers, who can’t afford to buy most of the products they produce. Manufacturers in China have been exposed for relying on coerced, disposable student “interns” for labour during peak seasons. Slowing and smoothing consumption, and focusing on improving production, will have long-term benefits for workers. This requires concerted action across the world.

The “Repair for Future” theme for International Repair Day reminds us that we have to act now in a way that will ensure the survival of today’s young people and future generations, not just here in prosperous, high-consuming countries but everywhere.

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  1. 1 Kings

    Check out ‘Pump by Josh Tickell. Don’t know how realistic it is to ‘convert your car to biodiesel, but very interesting.

  2. Stadist

    Global large companies operating in almost oligopolistic markets will naturally oppose all right to repair acts. Most repair work is extremely labour intensive, local and hard to automate, and thus it’s work in which the global companies can’t exert their economies of scale easily and at the same time any extended lifetime and durability means less sales for them. Simply said it’s not good business for them and so the global companies will not support these movements. They can still make money through sale of replacement parts, but obviously this is less sales than almost planned obsolence within 5 years for most modern electrical smart appliances.

    Right to repair movement should actually be beneficial for even many western societies, local labour is far easier to tax than the global multinationals and at the same time this repair work isn’t actually as low productivity work as some people might think.

  3. Adam1

    Yves, I wouldn’t rush to throw all gas guzzlers into the exception junk heap. It takes a lot of CO2 to build a new, replacement car. It’s more about how we use autos. When I was younger I drove a Jeep Wrangler and got about 20 miles to the gallon. I had a co-worker who bought a Prius when they first became available in the US and loved to tell everyone how great the car was for the environment because she was getting almost 40 miles to the gallon. People like me were just evil with our gas guzzlers, yet she commuted almost 30 miles a day round trip. Me, I drove less than 5 miles’ round trip to work. Even with her Prius, the fact that she chose to live so far from work made her carbon footprint bigger than mine.

    1. Jos Oskam

      Exactly this.

      It’s overly simplistic to only concentrate on the kind of car somebody drives, disregarding the use this person makes of it.

      My 1965 Ford Mustang is still going strong. How many times does the average owner replace his car over a period of almost 55 years? I seriously do wonder who leaves the biggest carbon footprint here. Not to mention the amounts of plastics and other nasty stuff created to manufacture modern cars… that ends up somewhere when the car is scrapped.

      Needless to say, I’m a big fan of the right to repair :-)

    2. jrs

      I agree we need to look at total cost of ownership of cars etc.. But here it’s just a case of you got LUCKY, whereas she actually did something proactive to reduce her carbon impact (it doesn’t mean hybrids or electric cars are *the* solution). But it definitely seems to me not everyone can be lucky.

      Because it’s total garbage to assume how far people commute to work is always a CHOICE. Maybe a 30 mile round trip is the ONLY job she could get. Because I’ve certainly been in the situation where 20 mile round trips were the ONLY job I could get at the time, there were no other jobs. Would you have chosen unemployment over working, in a noble bid to save the planet even if it means you have no income?

      Do you think anyone really likes long commutes even from a purely selfish perspective even if they don’t even believe in climate change? No they are draining and unpleasant. They find themselves doing them because 1) jobs are so precarious they aren’t worth moving for – would you move for say a 6 month or 1 year gig? 2) partner/spouses job is located where they live and neither have tons of job options 3) they can’t afford the rent near work and so long commutes are better than homelessness 4) they own a house and it doesn’t make sense to sell.

      1. Adam1

        I am completely sympathetic to the life constraints you describe. My co-worker was not constrained in any of those way and was basically green washing her life without really considering what her impacts were and at the same time behaving as if everyone else different than her was at fault.

        My point really wasn’t meant to be solely specific to where people live. It was meant to be more about choosing policy decisions that maximize the intent. Incenting me to get rid of my gas guzzler probably wouldn’t have netted much if any future CO2 reduction given my situation. However, given I live in Upstate NY and my furnace easily runs 6 months out of the year. Which would have yielded lower future emissions? Replacing a gas guzzler that was being driven less than 5,000 miles a year or insulating my home? We couldn’t replace every gas guzzler all at once and it probably isn’t even emission wise. That was meant to be my point.

    3. clarky90

      “How to convert a gasoline car to an electric car.” Scotty Kilmer


      I remember the first “sports sipper bottle” I saw in my town, years and years ago. They cost a few dollars (empty) and you could put your drinks in them to sip as you exercised. “What a great ecological idea!” I thought. Now, 40 years later, rubbish bins are full of single use “sipper bottles”.

      I fear a world with piles of discarded electric cars. When the battery dies after nine or so years, the car is abandoned. It will be cheaper to buy a new car than to replace the worn out, hard to get to, battery.

      Who replaces glued-in cell phone batteries? You shell out a thousand dollars and buy a “the latest” phone. The old phone goes int the rubbish.

      I like the way Scotty Kilmer thinks. Why not repurpose old carbon cars with batteries and electric motors?

      1. JE

        I replace my glued in batteries and screens. I’m typing this on a smart phone from 2014 on it’s second battery. It replaced a phone that went through three batteries and two screens before I gave up on it largely due to a need for a better camera and the phone wasn’t possible to snap back together due to being disassembled so many times for repair. I repair everything and teach my kids the same. Sewing, auto mechanics, appliance repair are all chores in our house. I helped my son replace a motor capacitor in his ceiling fan last week rather than a new fan. You can learn how to do the same very easily, YouTube has a video on anything you can think of. It’s fun and rewarding too. This kind of sea change starts at home. Next time something breaks, set it aside and set aside some time on a weekend to look at how you could fix it. Even things not designed for repair can be fixed with epoxy if the aesthetics aren’t critical. It’s time we changed our values. I wear clothes and use items with obvious repairs with pride. We all should value repair and reuse. Let’s make it cool. Is cool still a thing?

  4. William Beyer

    The notion has been around among architects for a long while; recycling and repair of buildings is almost mandatory compared to the cost, and embodied energy, of new construction.

    The book “Cradle to Cradle” was published in 2002 by architect Bill McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart. The Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program began as a proprietary system; however, in 2012 MBDC (McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry) turned the certification over to an independent non-profit called the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. The phrase “cradle to cradle” itself was coined by Swiss architect Walter Stahel in the 1970s.

  5. Joe Well

    We also need clothes that will hold up longer, as JL has been writing about. I am looking for a place that will re-dye my black pants that faded after maybe 10 washings. It would be nice if this service were more widely available (for those of us who are terrified of damaging the sinks in our rented apartments). It would also be nice if clothes just didn’t fade as fast.

    1. Kodakker

      It would also be nice if clothes just didn’t fade as fast.

      Indeed. However, good black dyes are terribly difficult to make. By definition, black dyes absorb all the light falling on them, and since light==energy, that energy has to go somewhere. Where some of it goes is into degrading the black dye(s).

      A lot of the stuff that stays back is not dyed, but has carbon or some other black substance integrated, which is why black plastics are usually pretty good.

      I used to work for Kodak Research Limited at Wealdstone in London, designing various photographic dyes, and there was a really interesting internal technical report which gave an overview of black dyes, and just how hard they were to make.

  6. Yassine

    The right to repair is a worthy goal but, to be truly transformative, it should be accompanied by a substantial increase in legally mandated warranty periods. In the EU, the current minimum legal warranty period is two years and so it does not lead to sustainable design of appliances. However, increasing it to ten years would completely change the game, as is argued in the September issue of Le Monde Diplomatique :

  7. JeffK

    Yes, Repair! And yet… recently I’ve observed a disheartening phenomenon with regard to apartment dwellers and their possessions. It seems that every other week when I take my meager sack of trash to the community dumpster I find perfectly usable furniture discarded. Some still in the IKEA box. And what is most depressing is that I am located about a block away from a Habitat for Humanity store which welcomes donations of all usable and resalable furniture to generate cash to fund the building of homes for the less privileged. So it appears that the previous owners of this furniture not only do not concern themselves with charity, they value their purchased furnishings as much as useless kitchen scraps and empty containers because they have grown tired of it. The notions of treasured family heirloom, or a piece that one cherishes so much that they buy it on lay-away appears to have become scarce.

    It seems there is an insidious trend in industrialized furniture production to both devalue the materials and create a market of ignorant consumers that are increasingly unaware of the environmental and social costs of the overproduction of cheap goods. The focus on minimizing costs so that marketers and distributors can have adequate profit margins and sell high volumes necessitates minimizing, if not eliminating, all craftsman handwork, sourcing the cheapest materials, automating almost all production steps, and keeping the number of fabricated parts to a minimum. Is it any wonder that things break more frequently? If it’s not discarded, it goes to the storage unit, attic, garage. We Americans just have and want too much stuff.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I hate to tell you, but having just moved, with VERY GOOD furniture, as in fine Art Deco pieces, no one wants furniture. No one would buy it, only a few charities would take it and many pieces were rejected. And I have to stress these were period pieces or very high end contemporary pieces, all in good to excellent shape.

      I did get someone on Craigslist to take some very good leather club chairs for free. Each chair had cost over $3000 (and that was cheaper than retail for the quality….I had them made and even chose and hauled the leather myself to the workshop). and had custom removable slipcovers too. Seriously. This was the word: “No one wants dark wood.” Of course, someone smart would distress it and paint it white, but I could not find that someone.

      On top of that, if you are an apartment dweller without a large SUV or pickup truck and a muscular friend or two, pray tell how do you get said furniture to a charity? It does not walk itself there. There are usually hard dollar costs (or time costs) and people who are moving are both money and time stressed.

      So yes, you cannot give this stuff away. It’s not a joke.

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