By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
With all that’s been happening in the world, I missed that the UK enacted new right to repair rules, effective for products purchased from 1 July onwards.
This is part of a broader trend. In March, the European Union implemented similar rules (see Waste Watch: Europeans Get Right to Repair for Some Consumer Electrical Goods, While John Deere Reneges on Promise to U.S. Farmers to Make Diagnostic Software Freely Available). In July, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, under the leadership of new chair Lina Khan, voted 5-0 to adopt a new enforcement policy regarding right to repair restrictions (see, FTC Votes 5-0 to Crack Down on Companies For Thwarting Right to Repair).
According to the BBC, Right to repair rules will extend lifespan of products, government says:
Manufacturers are now legally required to make spare parts available to people buying electrical appliances.
The aim of the new rules is to extend the lifespan of products by up to 10 years and benefit the environment.
The right to repair rules are designed to tackle “built-in obsolescence” where manufacturers deliberately build appliances to break down after a certain period to encourage consumers to buy new ones.
The new rules apply to products bought from Thursday, but manufacturers have a grace period of up to two years to make spare parts available.
Yesterday’s Guardian notes in Back for good: the fine art of repairing broken things:
When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1932, he portrayed a society in which the importance of discarding old clothes was whispered into the ears of sleeping children (“Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches”) – so vital was the imperative to drive consumption of the new. He set his novel 600 years into the future, but later suggested that its “horror may be upon us within a single century”. He wasn’t far off.
We can no longer bear the environmental costs of such untrammelled consumption, both on the front end, when production of unnecessary goods exacerbates global warming – nor on the back end, when somewhere must be found to dump the discards.
According to the Guardian:
Product life spans are getting shorter – one UK-based fashion company advises buyers to work to quality standards that assume a dress will stay in its owner’s wardrobe for less than five weeks. And it’s not just clothes: household appliances can be cheaper to replace than repair, with spare parts often available only if harvested from retired machines. Something as simple as a depleted battery frequently spells the end for today’s hermetically sealed electronic devices, and even attempting a repair can render warranties invalid.
As the FTC considers what policies to pursue regarding the right to repair, one element of the new UK rules worth borrowing is the requirement to make spare parts available for a product’s extended lifespan. Per the Guardian:
But a new law – the “right to repair bill” – has just come into force, aiming to end the “built to break” cycle by requiring that manufactures make spare parts and maintenance information available for their products. The intention is to overcome built-in obsolescence, enable repairs and extend lifespans. The government now expects white goods to last for up to a decade, rather than the seven-year average reported by the Whitegoods Trade Association.
According to the BBC:
Many consumers have complained that goods don’t last long enough, then can’t be fixed in the home.
Adam French from consumer group Which? said that electrical items end up in landfill too often “because they are either too costly or difficult to fix”.
The rules “should ensure products last longer and help reduce electrical waste”, he said.
Only parts for “simple and safe” repairs will be available directly to consumers, including “door hinges on your washing machine or replacement baskets and trays for your fridge-freezers”, he said.
“Other parts that involve more difficult repairs will only be available to professional repairers, such as the motor or heating element in your washing machine,” he said.
I’m not particularly bothered by restricting direct supply of certain parts to professional repairers only, as I’m leery of undertaking any electrical repairs myself. I guess I might think differently if I had some basic competence in fixing things. The key consideration is that parts are available to third party repair services. Some companies, such as Apple, have sought to limit the availability of spare parts and this is one practice Khan’s FTC will undoubtedly be assessing. And I point out that in a recent post, In included a video in which Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak discussed the open source environment and thriving repair culture that once prevailed in the U.S. not all that long ago for radios and TVs (see Steve Wozniak Endorses the Right to Repair). So there’s recent U.S. history when the default was to fix something, rather than throw it away and replace the device with another.
In May, my fridge went on the fritz and needed a new thermostat. We bought the fridge – a Frigidaire model in 2005 or 2006, when we had out kitchen renovated. The company also sold the same machines, badged as Kenmore – the Sears house brand – while Sears was still in business. IIRC, the fridge cost $600 or so and has no freezer, but we paired it with a matching standalone freezer of the same size as the fridge. That also cost $600. So not particularly cheap, by any means. The fridge is pretty basic, just a box for keeping things cold. It doesn’t have a water dispenser, and I chose a freezer without an optional ice maker. There are no buttons and the thermostat is a rotating dial. To me, having separate appliances is an advantage – if one appliance breaks, one can replace that one only. Alas, Frigidaire no longer sells the fridge separately from the freezer and has hiked the price: a new combo would cost $6,000. An insane amount to pay for a fridge and freezer. Absolutely insane. Needless to say, it’s an amount I wouldn’t dream of paying. Also, even if the fridge needed to be replaced, the freezer didn’t.
So I was relieved that a replacement thermostat was still available for my fridge. The company still markets the particular model I have, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t sell me – via the their-party repair service – the spare part. The price of the spare part (including installation) was steep: $350. When I read about the crapification of household appliances, I guess I should consider myself lucky: this is the first problem I’ve had with either appliance and we’ve now used them for more than 15 years – which is more than twice the seven-year average for the lifespan of UK white goods reported in the Guardian article above.
These new UK rules are a start, but some flaws are obvious. First, the UK rules apply to a limited range of electrical appliances. Per the Guardian:
But campaigners, such as the co-founder of the Restart Project, Janet Gunter, argue that the measures don’t go far enough. “This has been widely reported as ‘problem solved’, but the rules only apply to lighting, washing machines, dishwashers and fridges – and they only give spare parts and repair documentation to professionals,” she says. “We want to see ecodesign legislation applied to other hard-to-repair tech products and offer the right to repair to everyone.”
Another appliance issue has arisen for me this summer: sourcing a replacement part for an electric ice cream maker. The plastic cylinder that secures the top of the dasher so it can rotate went missing. It’s about an inch or so long and no more than a half-inch across. It’s an easy part to misplace as it’s supposed to be removed for cleaning. I can’t believe I’m the only owner of such a machine who needs to replace this particular part and in fact, this has happened to me before. That other time, we found the missing cylinder in the bottom of a container into which I’d decanted the ice cream. Thus far, I’ve had no luck finding a source for a replacement part, even though the ice cream maker is no more than four years old and the manufacturer still sells a similar model. That I know, because I liked mine so much I bought another as a Christmas gift for my sister in December – and in fact used it when I visited family in North Carolina in April and ended up demonstrating how to make gelato.
So I agree with Gunter that parts should be available for a broader range of household appliances – certainly at least as long as the company still sells a similar model. Now there are limits of course. I tend to hang onto things and don’t replace items for no good reason. I still have my old ice cream maker, a hand cranked machine that we received as a wedding present 35 years ago. In order to make ice cream, one places its insulated container into the freezer overnight. The next day, one adds ingredients, and hand cranks until the ice cream reaches the desired consistency. It makes great fruit sorbets, but the electrical machine yields far better results for anything more elaborate. Even I understand that seeking a replacement part for a 35-year item would be a bit of an ask.
In other respects, there may be less to the new UK rules than meets the eye. Per the BBC:
Environmental expert Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance, said that the new regulations “represent a small, first step towards giving people the long-lasting repairable products they want”.
“The government hasn’t given consumers any such right, as the spare parts and repairability criteria are only directed at professional repairers, not at the people who own products,” she said.
“There is also no guarantee that spare parts and repair services will be affordable, so considerable barriers remain to making this the easiest, default option,” she added.
The issues the UK is confronting are ones the FTC should also consider. I don’t know how far the FTC can get in enacting right to repair provisions using existing statutory authority. Some proposals might require separate, standalone legislation to achieve. But making it possible for consumers to extend the lifespan of electrical devices and household appliances should be politically popular. Doing so saves consumers money, reduces the environmental impact of unnecessary production, and cuts down on the waste that gets dumped in landfills. These are common concerns for many consumers worldwide.