How the Right to Repair Can Change Technology

Repairing devices and household appliances has become increasingly challenging, but new consumer rights laws aim to change this situation. Chris Stokel-Walker examines how this could alter the nature of the technology we use.

Surera Ward has been running Girls Fix It, a repair service near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for about four years. During this time, she and her team have gained a better understanding of the electronic devices that come into their workshop. However, they often can't fix them. "Repairing various devices is becoming more and more difficult," she says.

Ward faces difficulties not only in accessing essential equipment – she often relies on importing specialized tools from China to assist her and her employees in their work. For instance, after her team repaired a customer's phone, the device often displays error messages hard-coded by manufacturers to discourage users from seeking third-party repairs.

The recent practice known as "part pairing," where individual components are linked to the devices they come with using unique serial numbers, has made repairs more complex.

But as new laws are being introduced in the United States and Europe, granting consumers more opportunities to repair their devices, how could this change the nature of the technology industry? There is hope that this will help reduce the environmental impact of technology by extending the lifespan of our devices. Could it also improve the quality of the products we buy? Or could it simply give manufacturers the chance to raise prices while simultaneously selling expensive "repair kits" and spare parts to consumers?

Ward's business and similar ones often charge 50% less than official repair experts, such as the Apple Genius Bar, for device repairs. However, many customers avoid them because they are concerned about error messages or reduced functionality of their devices after "unofficial repairs."

The high cost of official manufacturer repair services, combined with the difficulty of accessing them, often leads consumers to be discouraged, and instead, they choose to replace their devices.

All of this means that we are increasingly disposing of our devices.

"We live in times when our growth model is mainly based on discarding things," says René Repasi, a member of the European Parliament from Germany, who is leading the promotion of the European Consumer Right to Repair law through parliament. "Practically every two years, we buy a new product, and our industry's production capacities are based on such a model."

Electronic waste is becoming a growing problem worldwide as consumers increasingly discard old devices and replace them with new ones (Photo: Getty Images)

According to a report by the European Environment Agency, many electronic goods in our homes, from televisions to vacuum cleaners, are used on average 2.3 years less than their calculated or desired service life. This underscores the problem of planned obsolescence, where products either quickly become outdated in consumers' eyes as they are encouraged to buy newer models or hardware becomes incompatible with updated software. Some manufacturers also stop providing security updates for software running on old devices, and some major companies have even been fined for deliberately slowing down device performance through software updates.

The environmental impact of this is profound, both in terms of the growing volume of electronic waste produced (an estimated 53 million tons were discarded in 2020) and in terms of the mining of rare earth metals required to manufacture new devices.

"I view this as a deeply ingrained story about planned obsolescence strategies," says Aaron Perzanowski, a law professor at the University of Michigan and an expert on the Right to Repair. In Europe, Repasi says that, ironically, European law is partly responsible for the short shelf life of our electronic and household products. In the 1990s, European legislation introduced a minimum two-year warranty period during which purchasers of any electronic item had the right to choose between receiving a completely new product or repairing their existing one if something went wrong.

Partly, legislation on minimum warranties was a response to manufacturers setting end-of-life dates for their products from the early 20th century, Perzanowski says. However, the widespread use of software on consumer devices has helped expand companies' abilities to limit the repairability of devices.