Pressure from consumers, government organisations, and other groups has forced technology vendors to address their industry’s closed, and often expensive repair ecosystem – a feature which had been helping to drive todays ‘throw-away’ Culture.
Device Manufacturers Impose Expensive Repair Fees
An unfortunate result of our increasing demand for more convenient and high-spec mobile and technological devices is that these are less accessible, more complex, and more difficult to repair. Even so, device manufacturers have exasperated this problem by creating proprietary parts which cannot be recreated by third parties; thus, consumers must go to the device vendor themselves for parts. Repairs are also made difficult- such as with some Apple devices where parts (such as batteries or memory cards) are glued in place, or the use of unique screws which require specialised screwdrivers to remove. A further issue is the in-built obsolescence seen in some electronic devices, whereby parts are almost guaranteed to fail after a set period. With this generally occurring conveniently outside of warranty, the only way to rectify the problem is to pay for an expensive repair or buy a new device.
Common accidents, such as the dropping of a mobile phone and subsequent cracking of the screen, are also harshly penalised. According to recent data from Which, iPhone screen repair costs are likely to be more than £196, and even as high as £316 for cracked screen repair on the newest iPhone 12 Pro Max model (retail price of £1,054). Samsung owners fair slightly better; repair starts from £109 for older models, rising to £259 for the recent S21 Ultra (retailing at £1,329).[i]
Federal Trade Commission Tackles the ‘Right to Repair’
There have been long-running attempts by consumer groups to push for a ‘right to repair’, simply put the movement wants consumers to have the ability to repair products, without being forced to purchase a new device, or pay for the manufacturer to repair it. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted unanimously in July 2021, to enforce laws around the issue. At the time FTC Chair Lina M. Khan said:
“These types of restrictions can significantly raise costs for consumers, stifle innovation, close off business opportunity for independent repair shops, create unnecessary electronic waste, delay timely repairs, and undermine resiliency… The FTC has a range of tools it can use to root out unlawful repair restrictions, and today’s policy statement would commit us to move forward on this issue with new vigour.”[ii].
In a positive step for consumers, this FTC decision has now been followed by US Copyright Office (USCO) proposals made in October 2021. The USCO submitted recommendations to add exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)’s rules governing access to devices and software; these were then subsequently approved by the Librarian of Congress. The most significant change is the new right to get into any consumer software-enabled device (mobile phone, laptop, etc) for the purposes of diagnostics, repair, and maintenance.[iii]
Similarly in the UK, a new law was passed in July 2021, which made it a requirement for some device manufacturers to make replacement parts available to owners of their products. However, this law is limited to appliances, therefore it does not include devices such as smartphones or computers. These appliance-makers now have two years to make parts available, with these remaining available for several years after the company stops making a particular product. Further, the bill only covers repairs that are safe in nature, and which can be undertaken at home. As such, more specialist repairs, such as that of heating elements or motors, will need to be done by a professional.
Device Manufacturers Respond
The FTC ruling and subsequent USCO legislation changes have already seen Apple announce plans for their new program “Self Service Repair” which will allow customers to buy parts from Apple for their products and perform repairs at home. Apple has also confirmed that it will publish repair manuals online, as well as offer tools to buy at the same price the companies authorised repair technicians pay.[iv]
Other tech providers, such as Microsoft are seeing increased pressure to provide consumers with access to parts and repair guides. The company recently reached an agreement with ‘As You Sow’, a non-profit investor group, to hire an independent consultant to consider the environmental and social benefits of making device repair easier. As Grist notes “Not only will the company study how increasing access to the parts and information needed for repair can reduce its contributions to climate change and electronic waste, it has also agreed to act on the findings of that study by the end of next year.”[v]
The Environmental Impact is Concerning
The result of high repair costs has been an increased tendency for consumers to simply discard broken electronic devices, and instead purchase newer models. This is in-part helped by the short shelf life of popular, sought-after devices such as mobile phones, which see new models released annually, and phone finance deals regularly provided on a 24-month basis (with upgrade deals promoted to customers). Cole Stratton, an associate instructor at Indiana University Bloomington was quoted by CNN as saying:
"The greenest smartphone is the one you already own… Smartphones seem so small and inconsequential, so unless you've studied the supply chains and realised everything that goes into creating [them], you really just have no sense of how environmentally devastating these things are."[vi]
According to Apple, with the iPhone 13, a staggering 81% of the 64 kilograms of carbon emissions generated by a single device comes from the production process, before it is transported to shelves.[vii] A further issue is that modern technological devices use many rare metals which are not only damaging to extract, but also cannot easily be recycled. Often ‘recycled’ devices are simply shipped to poorer nations where they are incorrectly handled and disassembled, putting both workers and the environment at risk of exposure to harmful materials.
Change is needed, The Sydney Morning Herald reports that “In just five years, the volume of discarded smartphones, laptops, printers and other electronic devices has jumped 21% worldwide. This e-waste reached a record 53.6 million metric tonnes in 2019, an average of 7.3 kilograms per person, and has become the fastest-growing domestic waste stream, according to the United Nation’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report.”[viii]
Source: World Health Organisation
It is hoped that the ability for consumers to repair their own devices will help to tackle the throw-away culture seen with electronics, aiding in reducing the e-waste burden, and hopefully creating an uptick in a ‘mend and make do’ culture. This can be aided by the media coverage environmental issues are currently receiving- helping to change consumer attitudes towards simply discarding devices which ultimately are hard to recycle. Further action can be taken by vendors themselves- looking at ways in which they can make devices less burdensome on the environment, and more easily recycled in a safe and efficient manner.