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To Save the Planet, We Need to Make Purposeful Strides Towards the Right to Repair

The Right to Repair campaign is rooted in a strong conviction that we need urgent action to halt the growing overconsumption and the ever-shortening lifespans of our devices.

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The 600 million smartphones currently in use in Europe are responsible for some 14 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, AP/Ben Margot, file

Right to repair movements are springing up across the world. The message all of them have in common – from America to Europe to Australia and beyond – is simple: fixing things should be easier than throwing them away. The European Union seems to share this mindset. In the past year, it has announced two crucial blueprints, the European Green Deal and the Circular Economy Action Plan, which recognise repair as a key strategy that helps reduce the environmental, social and climate impacts arising from our relentless consumption. However, bidding farewell to the throwaway culture in favour of an economic system that is circular by design will require much more than just political goodwill.

Having penetrated near to every aspect of daily routines, technology has not only completely transformed our day-to-day lives, it has also changed the way we produce and consume beyond recognition. Our relationship with the devices behind this digital revolution and the linear ‘take-make-use-dispose’ economic model that characterises it today, comes at a tremendous cost to our planet and societies.

Take the omnipresent smartphone, for instance. The 600 million devices currently in use in Europe alone are responsible for some 14 million tonnes of CO2 emissions – more than the annual emissions of Latvia. Add to that the contribution to the fastest growing waste stream in the world as well as the impacts on the environment and communities arising from the mining of well over 50 different metals needed to make the average device, and you have an image of the scale of the problem.

The idea that governments should support the repair of devices before they become waste seems like a rather obvious fix.

Although fundamental to reducing demand for both energy and resources, limiting the ever-increasing emissions linked to manufacturing, and increasing the resilience of local communities, repair often remains overly difficult, expensive or simply impossible. Far too often, it is also left entirely in the hands of the manufacturers. Instead of rewarding innovation geared towards durable, easy-to-repair designs, the current system favours disposable technology that easily becomes obsolete and antagonises those who choose repair over disposal.

It is clear that the market alone will not provide a solution. While producers need to take responsibility for the products they put on the market, only legislation can make sure that repairable devices become the new normal. And right to repair for all is how we get there.

The rise of Europe’s right to repair movement

Flashback to over a year ago: the European Union makes headlines for having adopted the very first rules aimed at tackling unrepairable designs in our TVs and kitchen appliances. Effective as of March 2021, the new requirements will ensure that the most frequently failing components in the TVs, fridges, washing machines and dishwashers sold in Europe are easy to replace and that spare parts and repair manuals are made available to professional repairers for seven to ten years. A watershed moment of sorts, it promised to set the EU on course to end today’s throwaway culture.

These rules did not come out of nowhere. Voices calling for a system change around repair had been growing louder over the past years. Among them, European consumers who are increasingly disappointed at the overly short lifespans of their products as well as the European businesses working in reuse, repair and refurbishment that face a growing range of unwarranted barriers.

The Right to Repair campaign is an obvious testament to this frustration. Launched by five organisations in 2019, within a year the campaign has grown to unite over 30 partners from 15 countries. All of them share a strong conviction that we need urgent action to halt the growing overconsumption and the ever-shortening lifespans of our devices.

The EU Green Deal and the Circular Economy Action Plan – the European Commission’s flagship environmental strategies – make a series of pledges aimed at tackling the premature obsolescence of our devices. Building upon the already adopted rules, the EU’s regulator committed to both expand repairability requirements to other products that are known to fail frequently – think smartphones, laptops or printers – and to better inform consumers about the repairability of their purchases. However, a year after taking office, Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission is struggling to live up to its promises.

The first and most obvious source of concern relates to delays. Initially planned for the year 2020, a whole range of different proposals – from those related to circular electronics to the way sustainability information is provided to consumers – have been pushed back to the end of next year. As a result, no concrete proposals have yet been tabled to improve the repairability of our devices, even though the key preparatory groundwork for some of the products such as laptops was completed a while ago. Von der Leyen started with a promising pace, which has since been reduced to an exasperating crawl.

Ambition under threat?

Delays are frequent in policymaking. Unfortunately, we have more reasons to be worried. A number of actions recently taken by the European Commission are contradictory to the promised ambition, leaving many of us scratching our heads in confusion. One of those relates to the recent proposal to water down some of the repairability rules applicable to TVs, a nod to the demands of the manufacturers. While facing major resistance from most national governments and therefore unlikely to be adopted, the proposal is in itself rather unnerving.

Worse still, this is not an isolated affair. Earlier this year the European Commission recognised a self-regulatory initiative proposed by Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft to allow the three manufacturers to avoid repairability rules. This was done in spite of the complete lack of tangible commitment that would facilitate the ease of repair of games consoles, and in disregard to calls from both EU member state governments and environmental organisations to ramp up the level of ambition.

These inconsistencies in the Commission’s approach do not quite warrant alarm bells…yet. There remains, after all, quite a lot to be hopeful about.

Both the mood among consumers and the strategic direction of the EU seem to indicate that the time for the tide to turn on the throwaway culture is imminent. What it does show, however, is that the system change will be neither simple nor smooth.

With a range of high-level promises made to tackle the early obsolescence of our devices, it is fitting to expect the EU’s leadership to walk the talk. This means not only ensuring that products are made to last and be easily repaired, but also making repair more accessible, affordable and mainstream – including by ensuring that repairability of products can be easily compared upon purchase.

The climate and environmental emergencies require bold and urgent action. Giving people the right to repair the things they own is a start, but small steps will not be enough: we need that purposeful stride we set off with a year ago.

Ernestas Oldyrevas is a programme manager at the European Environmental Citizens’ Organisation for Standardisation (ECOS), an international NGO with a network of members and experts advocating for environmentally friendly technical standards, policies and laws. At ECOS, he works to ensure that European institutions and international standards guarantee that electronic products are sustainable. He is also a steering group member of the European Right to Repair campaign, a coalition established in 2019 that advocates for a system change surrounding repair.

Equal Times is a trilingual news and opinion website focusing on labour, human rights, culture, development, the environment, politics and the economy from a social justice perspective.