Right to Repair campaigns aren’t only making progress in more than two dozen states, they’re also underway across the world. The European Union has already enacted reforms to make it easier to fix appliances and Australia is ramping up efforts to allow independent repair people and people like you and me to fix things ourselves — instead of having to get help from the companies that made our broken products.
Legislation to allow the Right to Repair for cars in Australia was introduced in March. Earlier this year, the country’s Productivity Commission launched an inquiry into repair accessibility and product repairability to determine the benefits of potential Right to Repair reforms. This week, the government released recommendations on repair for agricultural equipment.
The findings of the recent report on ag equipment give hope that concrete action is coming soon. Among the recommendations are:
Farm equipment should be included in the pending Right to Repair reforms covering the automobile industry — which should mandate increasing access to both information and service and diagnostic tools.
Manufacturers should provide clear and transparent information about how data is used and collected, “including options which allow purchasers to ‘opt out’ of schemes that would share or aggregate the data.”
The document represents a strong endorsement of Right to Repair. As inquiries continue in Australia, we wanted to highlight some of the next steps we might expect. During the Right to Repair inquiry, more than 140 consumers, organizations, businesses and community groups submitted responses, with the majority calling for pro-repair reforms. We dug into these comments and discovered several common themes, as we look forward to further policy recommendations.
1. Manufacturers should increase transparency
A number of commenters called for manufacturers to communicate the repairability of items to consumers. According to World Wildlife Fund Australia, “clear and transparent information on a product’s repairability and durability is critical to allowing people to choose more sustainable, cost-effective products. Enabling informed choice gives consumers market power, stimulating demand for more innovative and better designed products.”
This concept of transparency between manufacturers and consumers through repairability scores is not novel — it’s taking place in France right now.
2. Manufacturers have to make more durable products
Some responses draw attention to the importance of fostering device repair and reuse through product design. According to local Repair Café Woolloongabba, “a more long-lasting solution would be to remove the requirement for individual consumers to take action and place a heavier onus on manufacturers to produce quality, long-lasting goods with easy access to repair services.”
The more accessible durable products are, the less consumers will have to repeatedly replace their electronics and contribute to the ever-growing stream of e-waste.
3. We need to empower repair competition
Some comments point to how manufacturers elbow out independent repair businesses and force consumers to opt for a replacement. Nicholas Muradian, the founder of the independent cell phone repair shop The Phone Shop, wrote about the inflated cost of certain spare parts, such as replacement screens:
“After quoting a customer on a repair of X amount of a Samsung phone, we are constantly told that ‘thats [sic] almost the price of the phone, ill [sic] just get another one.’ This is another way that these companies monopolise the repair market and are pushing out small businesses like myself.”
The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Kate Carnell added that “the barriers to repair increase labour costs. This perpetuates a trend where it is cheaper to replace than repair.” In other words, the practices that manufacturers use — designing products to be difficult to repair or refusing to provide tools and information — make it costly for independent repair businesses to provide services. To earn a profit, they need to charge an often-prohibitive price for repair, so potential customers instead buy new items, and the independent repair shops find it difficult to sustain their business.
4. Reversing limitations on warranty service
Repair Café Woolloongabba notes “it is often difficult for consumers to find out about the viability of repair. Many companies require the product to be returned to them, which creates time delays and costs that often deter consumers from enforcing warranties.”
On the flip side of that coin, when consumers are unable to access warranty service but still want their device fixed, many manufacturers void warranties for independent repair — even though that’s sometimes illegal. Free Software Melbourne highlighted the absurdity of this practice by providing a real-life example in their submission:
“It is also important that consumers should not be punished for turning to third-party repairers. Currently many manufacturers void a customer’s warranty for even opening up their own device. It would be ludicrous if car manufacturers were to void their warranties if a customer popped the hood, yet this is exactly what is happening with our electronics devices.”
Such warranty protections only work when they are enforced. U.S. warranty law generally forbids manufacturers from voiding warranties for opening devices or seeking independent repair — though our investigation found this is common practice when it comes to appliances.
5. Increasing device security
One of the arguments against Right to Repair is that it poses a cybersecurity risk for consumers. But some advocates argue the opposite: creating a more robust community of repair and maintenance fosters better security.
“Open Access to this kind of data also enhances the security of our devices by enabling another level of independent auditing, analysis and research. The simple act of being able to see how their devices should work can provoke an interest for people in being able to maintain their own devices. This in turn can stimulate skill building in the electronics repair industry,” wrote Free Software Melbourne in its response to the inquiry.
Additionally, when manufacturers no longer support software updates for a certain device, consumers are forced to give up their security if they choose to hold onto that device for the remainder of its useful life. Electronic Frontiers Australia notes that when vendors discontinue service for certain devices, it “shifts the burden of software flaws onto the public who must bear the cost of any adverse impacts of those flaws both individually and collectively.”
6. Protecting ownership
At its core, the goal of Right to Repair is to restore consumers’ agency and give them the ability to repair the things they own. David Thorpe, a repair professional, wrote that the anti-competitive practices lead to “an erosion of ownership of a product a consumer has rightfully purchased, since we are beholden to the vendors’ interests as to whether such a device can be repaired or supported officially, thus in effect, making all consumers a ‘subscriber’ of even a physical product in their possession.”
When someone buys a product, the correct assumption should be that they own that object and can use it for as long as they please. However, our ownership of that product is challenged when a manufacturer refuses to support it through repairs or software updates. As Thorpe put it, instead of being “owners,” we’re “subscribers” when manufacturers can limit their product’s functionality on a whim.
7. Legislation is critical
Many Australians called for legislation to protect repair. As Professors Jesse Adams Stein and Alexandra Crosby from the University of Technology Sydney put it, “encouraging consumers to seek out repair (rather than replacement) cannot be achieved only with ‘soft’ measures (e.g. advocacy, voluntary community repair centres, social media encouragement). ‘Harder’ measures are necessary (e.g. regulatory / legal / tax-based) in order to achieve significant widespread behavioural transformation.”
Whether you are in Melbourne, Madrid or Memphis, we have a big-time problem: Companies that make our stuff want us to rely on them to repair and update our devices. But that leads to a loss of ownership and the rapid growth of electronic waste. We want to — and need to be able to — fix our stuff. First, we need to fix our laws.
Senior Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair, PIRG
Nathan leads U.S. PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign, working to pass legislation that will prevent companies from blocking consumers’ ability to fix their own electronics. Nathan lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, with his wife and two children.