Are We on the Cusp of a Repairability Revolution?

“Things fall apart.” It’s truism memorialized in poetry by William Butler Yeats and in physics by Ludwig Boltzman.

It’s also an increasingly important issue for consumer electronics, appliance and vehicle manufacturers. Specifically, the ability to repair said things when they do fall apart.

Last month, the European Union’s Ecodesign Directive went into effect. The Directive, which updates older regulations and adds several new ones, requires manufacturers to improve the repairability of their devices/appliances and facilitate easier repairs by offering spare parts and instructions for several years after a device is sold.

France has gone a step further. Starting in March, manufacturers are now required to display repairability scores on smartphones, laptops and other electronics.

The so-called “right to repair” movement is less robust in the U.S., but is nonetheless gaining momentum. According to The Repair Association, there are more than 20 right to repair bills making their way through state legislatures. In fact, multiple states have already adopted some form of these bills.

The repair movement draws on a long tradition of tinkerers, do-it-yourselfers and the cost-conscious. The movement has gained an additional fillip from the rise of “de-growth” or doughnut economics, which advocates for dramatically curbing consumption through, among other things, emphasizing longevity over disposability in consumer goods. While de-growth is a niche movement, it’s not simply a theoretical exercise. The city of Amsterdam is attempting a large-scale experiment in such economics as we speak.

Environmental activists are also making the case for greater repairability. With demand soaring for the critical minerals used in both electronics and green energy infrastructure (and in some cases, causing fresh environmental disasters), the hope is that a repairability revolution will prolong the lives of products that would otherwise be tossed and, ultimately, ease resource strains and greenhouse gas emissions. If more devices were repaired, or at least built to be repairable instead of quickly obsolete, then more individuals would hop off, or slow down, the consumption treadmill, mitigating a host of environmental burdens. (For example, 83 percent of the iPhone 12’s greenhouse gas emissions are generated during manufacturing. If Apple made fewer phones, Apple would contribute fewer heat-trapping gasses to the atmosphere.)

However, there are serious concerns on the road to repairability. The first is that electronics, and appliances especially, tend to become more energy-efficient over time. Holding onto devices and appliances for years may keep components from decomposing in landfills or factories from belching carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It could also mean less efficient products drawing power from the electric grid.

Another issue is security. As cyberattacks become a routine part of 21st century life, more chipmakers are building security into their products. If consumers are able to extend device life cycles for many years, they may also be prolonging the life of increasingly insecure devices as security technology evolves.

Finally, there’s intellectual property. Some of the opponents of the right to repair are concerned that giving users or third-party repair businesses access to firmware would compromise the security of their intellectual property and, potentially, a user’s private information.

While the right to repair will be fought out in statehouses and the nation’s capital, it remains to be seen whether consumers will meaningfully exercise that right. Indeed, absent more sweeping regulatory and legislative changes, consumer behavior is likely the real fulcrum for change. Viable networks of third-party repair businesses, easy access to manuals and spare parts, and more repairable devices won’t do much to stem current consumption patterns if consumers don’t take advantage of them.