This article was co-authored by Cristina Ganapini and Thomas Opsomer
In Europe and beyond, the current political discussions on how to promote repair – in particular of electric and electronic devices – show that campaigning and activism against premature obsolescence are starting to pay off. However, we need to open up the repair market for a broad ecosystem of actors, in order to substantially move away from our throwaway economy, while saving resources and preventing e-waste. The current EU repair initiative “Sustainable consumption of goods, promoting repair and reuse” has the potential to bring change, but we’re at risk of missing this opportunity.
Our message for decision-makers is clear: We need to empower those whose livelihood it is to prolong products’ lifespans. In other words, to make repair more mainstream and affordable, we must enable consumers to get their products repaired by the provider of their choice.
Gatekeeping (independent) repair means encouraging waste creation
So why is it so important to push for a universal right to repair which dismantles manufacturers’ monopolistic anti-repair practices?
Differently from other actors such as manufacturers and retailers, independent repairers focus exclusively on prolonging the lifetime of goods and do not have any incentive to replace them. As a consequence, independent repairers will often perform repairs that a manufacturer or their authorised repairers won’t. In many cases, they are able to repair the product at a lower financial and environmental cost.
In fact, for this reason, it would also be preferable if consumers could turn to independent repairers for faults that occur during the guarantee period: this would result in more repairs whereas the business-as-usual scenario all too often ends with the faulty product being exchanged for a new one.
Manufacturers’ monopolies limit some of the best repair options
The problem with a watered-down version of the right to repair is that it protects manufacturers’ practices which effectively reduce consumers’ repair choice. These can range from restricted access or prohibitive prices for original spare parts, over prematurely ending product support, to software designs that don’t allow the use of third party, second hand or even original spare parts – through a trick called part-pairing.
As a concrete example of the limited support that manufacturers offer, most producers of electric and electronic equipment or their authorised repairers do not perform board-level repair. This means repairing a circuit board by replacing individual components on it. Instead, they will only consider replacing the entire circuit board, which is often so expensive that the product is replaced instead. However there are independent repairers that can do these repairs and save the product from being discarded.
Let’s look at some specific examples. Apple will not repair the circuit board on a water-damaged smartphone or tablet. Independent specialists are often able to repair such boards and do not only save the product from becoming waste, but also recover stored data which would otherwise be lost. Sadly, on its forums, Apple has denied that this is even possible and removed posts from independent specialists explaining this possibility.
A common issue with washing machines, dish washers and dryers made by AEG, Electrolux, Zanussi and Whirlpool is the failure of the LNK304 chip on the motherboard, which switches the supply current. A kit of replacement components to repair the board (the chip and some other small parts such as diodes and resistors) can be bought on eBay for a few euros, and independent repairers can use these components to repair the board. The manufacturer on the other hand, only offers replacement of the complete board – sometimes even bundled with other additional parts, and often at a price of several hundreds of euros without considering labour costs. Faced with these economically unviable conditions, most consumers then decide to buy a new machine instead.
Similarly, many manufacturers of small household appliances will routinely suggest replacement of any product that is more than a few years old, and will refuse to supply even the simplest of parts such as a thermostat for a grill. In such cases, only an independent repairer will go the extra mile to repair your product.
In short, leaving manufacturers in a monopoly position for supplying spare parts and repair services leads to a limitation of repair options and drives up prices. Without competition in the spare parts price market, manufacturers can charge just about any price they want for spare parts. Aftermarket parts are usually much more affordable, and third parties will sometimes even offer parts that the product manufacturer refuses to sell at all.
Looking at Apple again, by default they discontinue parts distribution 7 years after discontinuing the product. Aftermarket providers on the other hand, will still offer parts for older products, be it a brand new screen for an iPhone 5 or a cooling fan harvested from a discarded 2012 Macbook Pro. Self-repairers or independent professional repairers can then use these to repair older products and keep them functioning for as long as possible. That is, unless part pairing software keeps the parts from working correctly – which can even happen with original Apple parts taken from another, technically identical product!
Allowing monopolistic anti-repair practices means ensuring few, expensive and cumbersome repair options for consumers – and it doesn’t have to be like this.
You might think that this situation is unavoidable, since only the original manufacturers are able to produce spare parts of sufficient quality – but this isn’t true. The automotive repair ecosystem offers excellent proof. A series of regulations ensure a level playing field for car repairs. Any manufacturer of spare parts has the right to sell them as ‘original parts’ provided they meet the same specifications as the factory-installed part, and independent repairers have the right to use any compatible part for repairs. However, if aftermarket parts are not available, they also have a right to obtain the parts produced by the car manufacturer. Moreover, guarantees may not be conditional on the use of parts of a certain brand. Thus, car manufacturers, their authorised service providers and independent repairers can all come up with their own ways of providing reliable and cost-effective service to the customer. It is only in such a monopoly-free system that competition can lead to more and better repair options for consumers.
An open repair ecosystem will offer easier, cheaper and more convenient repair options for consumers
In short, by banning unfair anti-repair practices, authorising the use of compatible spare parts and enshrining the right for consumers to seek repair by the provider of their choice, we would get much closer to making a functioning repair ecosystem for electric and electronic devices a reality in the whole of the EU.
Our concrete amendment proposals can be found here.