Right to Repair

Right to Repair: What's it all About and Why it Matters

Technology is an indispensable aspect of our daily lives. From mobile phones to laptops, tablets, power banks, and other electrical and electronic devices. When these devices break down, you may often have to undergo a complicated process to repair them. 

Some manufacturers recommend (or stipulate) that you can only visit a few suppliers to get your device fixed. In addition, fixing these devices may cost as much as getting a new one.

The right-to-repair movement is an international effort to prevent repair restrictions, push for access to repair options and protect consumer rights. 

In this article, we will examine what the right to repair is all about and why it all matters. 

What is the Right to Repair? 

Cellphone repair
Cell phone repair. Photo by Kilian Seiler on Unsplash.

The Right to Repair refers to the right of owners of devices and equipment to repair products without any restrictions freely. In other words, right-to-repair advocates that if you own a device or equipment, you should have the legal right to repair it yourself or take it to independent repair shops. 

Also, the right to repair requires access to spare parts, tools, and manuals needed to repair your devices.

The Repair Association or Digital Right to Repair Coalition (a right-to-repair advocacy group with over 400 businesses and millions of repair and reuse enthusiasts) started major grassroots movements which have led to almost all state legislative efforts in the United States. The Repair Association advocates for several objectives. Here are some of their right-to-repair objectives:

  • Provide consumers with repair information, including reasonable access to schematics, manuals, and software. Software licenses should not limit the support options. All contracts should include machine parts that are not included in the sale. 
  • Companies and manufacturers should make tools and repair parts, including diagnostic tools, to service devices available to third parties, including individuals.
  • The Repair Association also advocates for legalizing unlocking, modifying, and adapting any parts of the machine or device, allowing consumers to install custom software.
  • Original equipment manufacturers should design devices in a way that makes repair possible.

Besides consumer technology, repair advocates also highlight the need to repair other equipment like medical equipment, tractors, agricultural equipment (e.g., John Deere tractors), and much more.

More than efforts from the coalition, individuals have also started ballot initiatives. For example, thanks to individual efforts, a ballot initiative was certified and included in the 2022 ballot in Missouri.

Why is the right to repair important? 

Group of people using their cellphones.
Photo by fauxels.

Today, consumers use electronics daily. Think of cell phones or something like electronic toothbrushes. With the daily use of these products comes wear and tear. 

Most times, fixing consumer electronics and devices proves a difficult task. You may need to take it to the original manufacturer for repair or buy an entirely new product if the repair costs are high. 

On the other hand, most manufacturers do not share resources to help customers fix the product independently. You may also be unable to upgrade parts of your device due to these repair restrictions.

As a result, the lifespan of consumer electronics becomes shortened, leading to waste. For example, according to Statista, the average lifespan of consumer smartphones was around 2.65 years.

The environmental impact of e-waste 

Electronic waste or e-waste refers to obsolete or damaged electronic or electrical equipment. In 2021, 57.4 million tonnes of e-waste was generated1, with countries like China, India, and the United States producing the most e-waste. Here are some effects of electronic waste on the environment: 

Pollution

Electronic waste is not biodegradable, meaning that when this type of waste is disposed of, they accumulate in the environment, causing pollution. Open-air burning and acid baths of electronic components lead to the release of toxic materials into the environment. Also, this exposes workers to contaminants like mercury, cadmium, and lead. 

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), metals and chemicals from electronic waste, such as lead, mercury, nickel, and zinc, are hazardous to human health. The World Health Organization also reveals that exposure to these chemicals can adversely affect children and expectant mothers.

Soil and water contamination 

When we dispose of electronics waste improperly, heavy metals and flame retardants can seep into the soil, causing contamination of both groundwater and crops planted. Since they are non-biodegradable, these e-pollutants can remain in the ground for long and harm plants and microorganisms.

These heavy metals and chemicals also enter our streams, rivers, and lakes, leading to toxification and acidification of our water sources. Acidic water can kill marine animals and damage the ecosystem. It is also unsafe for plants and humans. 

Climate change 

Electronic consumer goods also have some effect on climate change. With more old, damaged devices in our landfills, manufacturers produce more to replace them. This can increase the carbon footprint during production, contributing to climate change and global warming. 

Read more: Importance Of E-Waste Recycling & grab an eco-friendly phone case to help your device last longer before those repairs become necessary.

Examples of right-to-repair laws 

Here are some examples of different right-to-repair legislation: 

Access laws for replacement parts, tools, and repair documentation 

  • For the automotive industry, the Massachusetts Right to Repair Act in 2012 guarantees car owners the right to have their vehicles serviced at independent repair shops. The law also allows independent mechanics to access diagnostic tools. When this law passed, vehicle/car manufacturers began negotiating with repair advocates to secure the right for vehicle owners in the United States to access tools, parts, and documentation. 
  • In Colorado, a bill was passed to secure the right to repair wheelchairs, requiring manufacturers to make repair manuals, tools, parts, and documentation available to owners and independent repairers at a reasonable and fair price. In addition, the bill requires manufacturers to provide digital access that consumers need to complete repairs. In New Jersey, Bill A3612 gives farmers the right to repair farm equipment and lawnmowers. 
  • In Canada, right-to-repair laws have also been introduced for automotive car owners. The right-to-repair legislation bill C-231 seeks to protect the car owners’ choice when repairing their vehicles. The bill allows customers to fix their cars anywhere they choose at a fair cost and with proper tools and parts as available by manufacturers to authorized dealers. 
  • The Ministry of Consumer Affairs (MCA) set up a committee to develop a right-to-repair framework in India. This framework will allow users to repair products at a reasonable cost. This covers sectors like automobiles, cell phones and tablets, farm equipment, and consumer durables. In addition, this framework requires manufacturers to share product details with users so they can repair them easily or use independent shops. 

Corporate policy 

John Deere Tractor
Not just our devices but tractors and many other consumer products may fall under the right to repair. Photo by Dietmar Reichle on Unsplash.
  • In January 2023, John Deere signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Farm Bureau Federation, agreeing that American farmers should have the right to repair their equipment or service it at independent repair shops in the United States. However, consumers and independent shops should not divulge some trade secrets and cannot override or tamper with emission control settings.
  • Companies like Fairphone and Framework Computer also create devices that are easy to repair.   

Benefits of supporting the right to repair legislation 

The right-to-repair movement has several advantages for users and the environment. Here are a few benefits that come with supporting the right to repair: 

Accessible repairs 

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of supporting the repair movement is accessibility. Users can easily repair their products without paying hefty fees with the right to repair. More people can easily access these services without waiting on the manufacturer. 

Environmental sustainability 

Another benefit that comes with support for the right-to-repair movement is environmental sustainability. With the right to repair, we can extend the lifespan of our devices, reduce waste and protect natural resources that would otherwise go into producing new devices. 

Job creation  

With more individuals and independent repair shops having access to knowledge, repairs can be done locally, creating more jobs. It also creates healthy competition between local businesses and manufacturers, stimulating local economies. 

Buying refurbished items

The right-to-repair movement emphasizes reducing the replacement of electronic devices and reducing waste. With the right to repair, users can turn to refurbished items instead of buying new products. Refurbished products are functional and affordable while reducing waste. In the long run, buying refurbished items can help boost the circular economy

Arguments against the right to repair

Specialist cellphone repair
The smaller and more complex our devices, the more specialist equipment is required for repair. Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko.

While there are many benefits of having right-to-repair laws, there are some arguments against these laws. 

One of the major arguments against right-to-repair legislation is user safety. Many argue that having access to manuals and spare parts can get users injured as they may not have the skill or training to conduct repairs. Many devices are also combustible, and mishandling these devices can hurt the user or customer. 

Another argument is that companies use more intricate tools and materials that require licensing. As a result, consumers cannot easily purchase these materials at a local hardware store. 

Many also argue on the issue of device security, claiming that allowing third parties to access software, tools, and sensitive repair information, can jeopardize the safety of a user’s device.  

They claim that these third-party repairers can get into software locks and hijack customer data. 

For other manufacturers and companies, easier repair means the product can last longer, affecting future sales. If consumers can easily fix their devices and machines, they won’t need to purchase another, making it difficult for these companies to generate more sales. 

Many companies have lobbied against right-to-repair laws. For example 2018, companies like Toyota, Facebook, Verizon, and others lobbied against right-to-repair laws in New York.

In May 2021, the Federal Trade Commission analyzed many reviews against the right to repair. It concluded in a report that there was scant evidence to support the manufacturers’ advocacy for repair restrictions.

Corporations responding to the right to repair movement

Several companies over the years have fought against right-to-repair laws, refusing to offer self-service repairs based on intellectual property infringement.

However, as consumers demand repairs, tech companies have made adjustments to improve user experience by repairing their products. Here are some companies responding to the movement:

  • Samsung has various servicing options that help cater to consumers and improve their experience. In partnership with iFixit, their self-repair service provides customers with videos and kits to help them fix their devices right from their homes. The brand also offers a Beyond Boundaries program that sends technicians for at-home repairs if you stay within a four-hour radius of a Samsung care center. 
  • Farmers often face inconveniences finding an OEM service provider to fix their large farm equipment. In 2023, the movement experienced a major win, with Deere signing an agreement allowing farmers to fix their farm equipment closer to home. The agreement intends to provide farmers with all the tools and software they need for John Deere farm equipment repairs. 
  • Apple has also announced the launch of a self-repair store that sells parts and tools consumers need to fix device problems. Consumers also have access to repair manuals which they can find on their website. 
  • Companies like Framework Chromebook include customizable hardware, which makes it easy for users to change parts of the hardware, including batteries and ports. 
  • In 2022, Google also announced that they would be offering Pixel users more options to repair their phones. Users can make their own repairs as long as they are skilled or get help from third-party services in countries like the US, Canada, Germany, Japan, the European Union, and more countries to come. 

Does the right to repair have an impact on product warranties?

The right to repair does not impact warranties and consumer protections. In the United States, conditioning warranty service is illegal and a violation of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act - a federal and state legislation that directs the Federal Trade Commission to formulate regulations for written warranties.

The law was passed to protect consumers by fixing problems arising from manufacturers using disclaimers on warranties unfairly. Under this act, a company cannot condition a product’s warranty. 

Providing certain parts of the product for free and voiding the warranty still violates the law. However, a company can withhold warranty coverage for damages caused by third-party services. This law allows most users to use in-warranty services and independent repair stores when the original warranty has expired.

Final thoughts on the right to repair   

Over the years, the right-to-repair movement has gained popularity in diverse states and countries worldwide. The movement aims to give consumers more control over the use of their devices. 

With continuous technological advancement, it is important to consider these laws to protect consumer rights and the environment. The movement protects consumer rights and promotes innovation, sustainability, job creation, and repair market growth.

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1

Global E-waste Generation Outlook 2030 | Statista. (n.d.). Statista.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photo by Dan Cristian Pădureț on Unsplash
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