Right to redress, the rare victory of consumers
EU law is forcing companies to provide repair manuals and restrict unfixable products.
In the closing months of a pandemic-stricken 2020 the European Parliament took an ambitious step to address the issue of millions of tons of electronic waste the EU produces annually by voting in favour of the ‘Right to Repair’. A law that will give us Catalans more leverage when shopping as we will be less likely to be told a product isn’t worth fixing, so we might as well buy a new one. Handymen and handywomen all across Catalonia have a reason to celebrate.
Spain alone accounts for over 900,000 tons per year, 20 tons per capita and the fifth country in the EU. With only 200,000 tons of this electronic waste being collected, less than 21%, due to its low value and difficulty in recycling.
A landmark move which adopted the resolution with 395 votes in favour and just 94 against, with 207 abstentions and which should come into force by spring this year.
No more pentalobe and tri-wing screws?
The introduction of a legally binding “right to repair” system will force manufacturers of white goods and eventually of other electronic products including smartphones, tablets and PCs, to provide spare parts for a minimum of seven to ten years, depending on which product. They will also be required to issue repair manuals and to ensure they can be repaired with commonly available tools so in a few years we can hopefully say goodbye to the long list of obscure screws some mobile phone brands use in order to make it next to impossible to dismantle their devices with readily available screwdrivers.
On this basis the EU Commission is also asked to “develop and introduce mandatory labelling, to provide clear, immediately visible and easy-to-understand information to consumers on the estimated lifetime and repairability of a product at the time of purchase.” .
In the same way the Energy Labelling Directive adopted in July 2017 aims to provide a clear and simple indication of the energy efficiency and other key features of products at the point of sale so that consumers can make an informed purchase in order to save money on their energy bills while contributing to reduce greenhouse emissions, it is hoped this new legislation will go some way in tackling the premature obsolescence conundrum while striking a compromise between manufacturers and regulators that can ultimately benefit the consumer and the environment.
France well ahead of the pack
Following a French government vote late last year to introduce an index of repairability on consumer tech appliances France implemented the new rules in January 2021. A set of decrees which include a mandate to inform the consumer about the possibility, or not, to repair a product, the first country to do so.
Apple which together with Amazon, Google and Facebook was the subject of a tech antitrust hearing by the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary and which was often conflicted about its right to repair stance, was one of the first companies to publish repairability scores for its iPhones and MacBooks, well ahead of the end of the 2021 deadline.
The index will not only help consumers get better value for money but should also increase the lifespan of these durable goods, up to now often treated as disposable consumables, while at the same time creating additional competition between manufacturers who will aim to get top marks on the repairability scale.
There are plans in place to increase its outreach and implement a mandatory durability scoring system based on repairability and solidity of materials which should come into effect in 2024.
Too far or not far enough
As with any new laws, especially when it comes to sustainability and the environment, there are bound to be opposing sides claiming the new measures are insufficient or too draconian. This is no different and the rate of expansion of this new legislation will be a slow process before it covers all consumer devices and will most likely face a number of bureaucratic barriers and hostility from manufacturers.
One of several caveats is the access to repair manuals and spare parts which will be freely available to professional repairers, although not for the first two years of product launch, but restricted for consumers and non-professional repairers, far from the still utopian universal right to repair. A key factor that can be easily abused by manufacturers when considering what it takes to qualify as a certified professional repairer.
Furthermore, manufacturers are only required to provide spare parts within fifteen working days, quite clearly an unreasonable length of time for someone waiting for his fridge or washing machine to be repaired.
And it gets worse when it comes to software support as manufacturers are not compelled by law to provide any assistance nor updates throughout the lifetime of a product. Something worth considering when we live in a digital world where everything seems to have a chip and software interconnected through the IoT.
Manufacturers and their political backers from the liberal and conservative right arguing in favour of de-regulation tried their best to weaken some of the provisions but ultimately lost the vote on obsolescence if only by a small margin.
That is not to say this is the end of the road but merely the beginning of a long journey that is likely to face many hurdles along the way.
Anti-tinkering policies, Intellectual Property laws, Copyright acts and ‘void if opened’ warranty schemes will no doubt be used to try and bypass some of this legislation, but we should not lose sight of the significance of this groundbreaking law. Perhaps only a small first step but with so much at stake when it comes to the environmental sustainability of our planet, a small step we cannot afford to do without.