Think of a time you’ve had a device break. Maybe your phone screen shattered, or a gaming console broke. Electronics companies like Apple and Microsoft, not to mention manufacturers in other industries, have essentially staked a monopoly on performing repairs via a combination of limiting the availability of parts and service manuals and policing who’s allowed to do the job.
With that monopoly, only their own technicians and repair shops are able to make repairs—never the actual consumer. But right to repair legislation is trying to change that.
What Is ‘Right to Repair’?
Sometimes device manufacturers exert control by preventing the circulation of service manuals or making people pay to access them. Other times, obstacles to user repair are encoded in the device itself, with software locks or TPMs (technological protection measures) specifically designed to prevent user access and replacement. The right to repair movement would allow you to fix something yourself, or be able to choose your own service provider.
“Information makes the repair economically viable. If someone had put the information online, you’d see millions of those units being fixed,” Kyle Wiens, co-founder and CEO of iFixIt (which has become a leading proponent of the right to repair movement), told The Washington Post. “But the initial barrier is so high that no one is out there doing it.”
And it’s not just electronics. Vehicles, medical devices, kitchen appliances, and agricultural equipment (like John Deere tractors) have all been subject to manufacturer-imposed requirements that restrict the user from undertaking their own repairs.
Such gatekeeping became especially egregious during the pandemic. When ventilators broke down in hospitals, for instance, manufacturers’ monopolistic grip on servicing and repair often made it impossible for hospital staff to fix it themselves. Instead, special costly technicians were required to do the work that biomedical technicians might do themselves, if manufacturers would let them.
How the ‘Right to Repair’ Movement Can Help the Planet
Manufacturer repair monopolies are harmful in more ways than one. Making repairs too difficult or costly encourages the disposal of devices, usually well before their actual lifespan comes to an end. This means more waste generated and more money spent replacing discarded items.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group reports Americans spend an average of $1,480 per household on new electronics annually, and that collectively, Americans could save a whopping $40 billion if people were empowered to repair and extend the lives of their products themselves.
They’ve also quantified the waste aspect, estimating that some 6.9 million tons of electronic waste is generated nationally per year. That’s about 176 pounds per family. This isn’t even counting the waste generated in the production process itself. Manufacturing relies on natural resources and energy use—energy that, at this time, is still largely dependent on polluting fossil fuel sources.
For instance, Apple’s manufacturing data for the iPhone 12 breaks down the phone’s carbon emissions by lifecycle phase: 83 percent comes from production, 2 percent from transport, and 14 percent from use. Reducing the massive turnover and consumption of brand-new digital devices and appliances would contribute to mitigating emissions from this most highly-polluting lifecycle phase.
The Future of ‘Right to Repair’
The last few months have witnessed an explosion of bipartisan support for right to repair legislation. With half of U.S. states now considering independent repair laws, it appears that manufacturer repair monopolies have finally reached a tipping point of disapproval among the broader public.
With that, organizations like The Repair Association, consumer advocacy groups like the U.S. PIRG, and companies like iFixIt are campaigning with fervor. As legislation lands on the desks of lawmakers in an increasing number of states, let’s hope their efforts are rewarded.