30 per cent of users have replaced a smartphone because the performance of the old device had significantly deteriorated, and 19 per cent replaced it because certain applications or software stopped working on the old device. 

Extending software updates, alongside making repair information and access to spare parts available and affordable is an essential aspect of a universal Right to Repair. Markus Droemann from campaign member Nesta explains why, presenting their recent report on the topic.

In case of emergency, break the two-year cycle

When it comes to Europe’s digital future, the European Commission seems optimistic. In its latest blueprint on the issue, Europe’s Digital Decade, it paints a picture of a Europe, digitally transformed, where consumer rights are elevated and our environmental footprint lowered by 2030.

Yet, this image of the future is questionable. There is no doubt about the environmental and social impacts of digital products. More people spend more time connected to the internet, using more devices—which we choose to replace more regularly—in increasingly energy-intensive ways.

If Europe wants to get serious about its green ambitions, it will have to tackle the challenge of building both a greener and more digitalised economy at the same time. Nowhere is that problem made more obvious, than our relationship to smartphones.

The scale of the problem

Europeans buy around 200 million smartphones a year. Each device requires the mining of roughly 34 kilograms of raw ores, using processes which put a huge strain on environments, workers and communities, predominantly in the Global South. Europe’s obsession with smartphones alone moves over 6.8 billion kilograms of earth every year, more than the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Global manufacturing processes are also energy-intensive. Smartphone production is estimated to account for 11 per cent of the combined energy consumption of all internet technologies. Throughout their full lifecycle, smartphones alone create 12-16 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions each year, which is more than the carbon budget of Latvia in 2017. The problem is perpetuated by the fact that Europeans, on average, replace their smartphones every two years, usually long before the devices reach the end of their useful life. 

Since 72 per cent of smartphone-related emissions occur before the device ever reaches its owner, breaking the vicious two-year replacement cycle of smartphones could make a huge difference to our carbon footprint. The European Commission’s own assessment predicts that increasing the lifetime of a smartphone to just three or four years would reduce the emissions from this device category by 29 and 44 per cent respectively.

So what can we do?

Thankfully, Europeans are beginning to take note of these issues. The Right to Repair Europe movement, in particular, has raised awareness for the myriad ways in which modern product design intentionally and inadvertently shortens the lifetime of consumer electronics. But is a Right to Repair, as it is now being considered by the European institutions, really going to break the vicious two-year cycle of smartphone consumption? 

In our latest report, Nesta and NGI Forward look at the challenge ahead. We propose three additional measures that Brussels policymakers should consider to boost consumer rights and make tomorrow’s smartphones more sustainable. 

1. Mandate seven years of software updates:

The useful life of smartphones is largely dependent on their software, which needs regular updates to keep the devices running smoothly and securely. 30 per cent of users have replaced a smartphone because the performance of the old device had significantly deteriorated, and 19 per cent replaced it because certain applications or software stopped working on the old device. 

Despite the importance of prompt and long-lasting software provision, the 69 per cent of European smartphones running Android get an average of only two-years’ worth of updates. Apple’s devices fare better, receiving five years of software support on average, but there is no legal requirement to provide any minimum duration of updates. 

This could change. We’d like to see manufacturers providing seven years of updates, which would drastically improve the long-term usability of devices and bring down the cumulative environmental impact of smartphones.

2. Enable alternative software when updates end:

Smartphone makers and policymakers should also explore ways of opening up devices to third-party operating systems and software in ways that extend their ‘aftermarket life’ without compromising on device security. 

Approaches to this could vary. The EU could require manufacturers to make a device’s software open-source when it stops providing software support. For example, this might involve the publication of the software’s code on a public platform under an Open-Source Initiative approved license, allowing communities of Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) developers and security experts to continue support for older devices. Often individual components use their own firmware and drivers, however, so this approach would have to consider the entire supply chain.

Another solution would be to enable users to switch to open-source or aftermarket operating systems, such as /e/ or PostmarketOS, which can significantly extend the lifetime of otherwise unsupported devices. Fairphone is an example of a company that has already adopted this approach by allowing users to unlock their device and install alternative software. 

3. Make repair manuals and diagnostic tools publicly available:

Smartphones are incredibly complex, so anyone repairing one needs an accurate and straightforward guide to understanding the device. However, most smartphone manufacturers tightly control access to information about how to repair their devices, making it more difficult for repairers and end-users to extend their device’s lifetime. 

Some device makers have argued that repair manuals and schematics constitute trade secrets, and their publication could enable repairers to infringe on their copyright. However, according to The Repair Association, repair manuals do not need to contain trade secrets, and manufacturers are still protected from imitation by their copyrights and patents.

Members of the European Parliament have voted multiple times in favour of a ‘Right to Repair’, but this can only be effective if consumers are empowered to meaningfully assert their rights. 77 per cent of Europeans would rather repair their electronic devices than replace them. But without repair manuals and diagnostic tools, millions of damaged smartphones are abandoned each year. We know these materials exist and that manufacturers will publish them if the incentives are right – just as Samsung recently shared several repair manuals for its smartphones to boost its scores on the French Repairability Index.

What’s next?

The European Commission is consulting on legislation in this area throughout this year, so concerned citizens and civil society organisations should make their opinions on the Sustainable Product Initiative and Ecodesign Regulation heard in the coming weeks and months. 

And you’re interested in this issue, sign up to the Right to Repair newsletter here, and we’ll keep you posted on updates on smartphones regulations on mandatory long-term software updates and availability of repair manuals.

Image: Hellebardius @Flickr

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