Right to repair revisited | Greenbiz

Just about a year ago, I queried if 2021 could be the year of Right to Repair. 

For the movement that is championing the consumer’s right to fix their products — and by association, bringing attention to the dwindling lifespan of electronics and the alarming volume of waste planned obsolescence is generating — 2021 looked like a breakthrough year. The European Union took on the repair mantle, most notably with mandatory repairability indexes for electronics in France, and in the U.S., 27 states introduced more than 40 Right to Repair bills. 

While momentum felt palpable, my powers of prediction proved unimpressive. A year of legislative wins never came to pass stateside as nearly every proposed bill expired or died, often in the secretive shadows of a closed door committee. 

While 2021 may not have delivered, a series of momentous headlines last week rejuvenated my attention and anticipation: The EU mandated a universal charging port for phones, cameras and tablets, Colorado passed the nation’s first Right to Repair bill for powered wheelchairs and — in another first for the nation — New York’s legislature passed a sweeping electronics Right to Repair bill. 

With all this action, I thought it a good time to revisit where this mighty movement stands. I sat down with repair guru and advocate Kyle Weins, CEO of iFixit, to break down what’s changed, what hasn’t and what’s next in the world of repair. 

What’s changed

For obvious reasons, the passage of legislation is perhaps the most significant development to report — but what may be less obvious is the outsized impact these victories will have. 

Under New York’s Digital Fair Repair Act, as an example, electronics manufacturers will be required to make tools, parts and instructions for repair available across the state — and what happens in New York (likely) won’t stay in New York. 

Weins shared, “We don’t expect manufacturers to limit availability of that information [like instructions and repair manuals] to just New Yorkers — we expect that to be global information. It’s the same thing with parts. If you’re going to sell parts in New York, why not just sell parts everywhere?” With this in mind, Weins happily reported, “We don’t need to get this [bill passed] in more places, one is good enough” and is likely to create repair-enabling ripples across the nation. 

The same can be said of the EU’s universal charging port mandate, which will require all phones, cameras and tablets sold after 2024 to use a USB-C charging port. Companies such as Apple — which have leveraged proprietary charging technology in lieu of a universal port — will need to redesign their products for the European market. And “they’re not going to sell a different iPhone in Europe than the U.S.,” Weins notes. In effect, the European rule has global implications. 

Having seen the writing on the wall, many repair-resistant behemoths have shifted their public strategy on repair, offering repair parts for do-it-yourself consumers and repair shops. This is a significant change of the winds considering these tech titans have historically “not been willing to negotiate a compromise,” as Weins recalls.

What hasn’t

Much like 2021, this year has seen numerous Right to Repair bills introduced across the nation, including 20 states with active bills. And much like 2021, most of these are likely to die before the year is out. 

That’s because the barriers to passing meaningful Right to Repair legislation remain the same. As Weins explained, “We [almost] always have the votes; it’s just a matter of lobbyists… we have large corporate entities that have a vested financial interest on the other side. [The barrier is] getting past them.”

The importance of legislative wins also remains the same. While New York’s bill will have an outsized impact, it included some notable carve-outs: “The concern is, it doesn’t cover medical devices, home appliances or farm equipment,” noted Weins. 

We have large corporate entities that have a vested financial interest on the other side. [The barrier is] getting past them.

This is why Colorado’s important — albeit narrow — bill is critical. By protecting the right to repair powered wheelchairs in Colorado, it is likely to protect that right across the nation. Should future state bills cover medical devices, home appliances and farm equipment respectively, we could see a patchwork of laws enshrining the Right to Repair across the nation. 

Another thing that hasn’t changed? “Overwhelming support” and the unyielding pressure of Right to Repair advocates. Weins insisted, “We’re gonna keep going… I like to say all humans are in favor of the right to repair. This is not a partisan issue.”

What’s next

Just as in 2021, the future holds consequential and unexpected momentum. Here’s what I’ll be keeping my not-so-clairvoyant eye on:  

At the state level

While many state-level Right to Repair bills are likely to go unpassed this year — partially due to the clock running out on most legislative sessions — a few hopefuls may prove the exception to the rule.

Pennsylvania and Massachusetts both have active repair bills, and time in their sessions to pass them — and while Minnesota’s legislative session has closed, there’s a possibility of a special session that could take up their bill before the year is out. 

Looking beyond 2022, as Weins contends, “[for] most other states… we’ll just take it up next year.” 

At the national level

Beyond a repair-focused executive order and a scathing Federal Trade Commission report, the federal level has seen a handful of repair bills introduced — and stalled. 

I like to say all humans are in favor of the right to repair. This is not a partisan issue.

According to Weins, the most critical to watch is The Freedom to Repair Act, introduced by Reps. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) and Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) This bill provides a narrow fix to an obscure section of U.S. copyright law that prohibits certain kinds of digital repairs. As Weins passionately argued, “This is the most important one, because a New York bill can’t fix this problem. This has to be solved at the federal level.”

At the corporate level

In the ideal, repair-enabled world Weins envisions, “The repairs need to be possible, they need to be affordable, they need to be economical, then they have to be easy…. It’s not good enough to have just a piece…. [It requires] circular thinking [and] systems thinking.” 

Beyond the legislative hurdles, Weins and I discussed the biggest barrier to this ideal future: “Manufacturers have forgotten how to do this.”

“You have to design intentionally and create the system. [You need] serviceability engineering teams, where they focus on making products repairable. You need folks who are really good at creating technical documentation, writing service manuals and making things easy… this doesn’t happen by accident.” As Weins acknowledges, “Thirty to forty years ago, they knew how to do it; they’ve just forgotten how.” 

With that in mind, I’ll be focusing on how manufacturers and corporations alike adapt their strategies to enable repair: Who do they hire, what services and parts do they provide and how systemwide is their approach? 

Some organizations, such as Google and Samsung, are establishing self-repair programs with the help of iFixit — remembering what they may have forgotten by partnering with a repair veteran that offers muscle memory. For those in partnership with iFixit, “I’m confident we’ll be able to pull off [a well-running repair system],” Weins shared. “Everyone else is going to have to catch up.”  

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