In a recent New Economics Foundation newsletter, Duncan McCann focussed on what has long been known as planned obsolescence, citing the example of Apple, who, like many manufacturers, makes it expensive or impossible to repair its products. This means that their products have to be thrown away, creating huge amounts of electronic waste.
The tide is turning
Meta, the news channel of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), reports that Apple has been fined €8 million by an Australian court for refusing to fix iPhones and iPads that had been previously repaired by a third party.
The Manchester Declaration by the UK community repair movement (follow the link to see a wide range of members) calls for the repair of products, especially electronics, to be made more accessible and affordable, while ensuring that product standards that make products easier to repair are adopted.
Last year Meta reported that the European Parliament voted in favour of measures to make consumer goods, including smartphones, longer lasting and more easily repairable by design. NEF adds that in December 2018, EU member states voted to set new manufacturing standards for fridges and freezers, with additional product groups being considered over the coming months.
Design decisions for products limit or totally preclude repair
Duncan McCann explains that manufacturers often make design decisions for products that limit or totally preclude repair: “Product parts are very often glued or welded together, which makes them hard to replace. Manufacturers use customised screws and fittings: when Apple released the iPhone 4, the phone was put together using a new screw for which you could not buy a screwdriver. This forced users to go through Apple to get the product repaired. Apple also used the repair process to retroactively fit these screws to all iPhones”.
From design and a lack of spare parts, to software and terms and conditions, manufacturers are using a whole range of tactics to block consumers’ ability to repair products.
In order to enable consumers to repair their phones, fridges, and other goods, manufacturers have to provide replacement parts, diagnostic tools and service manuals to all who need it — from individuals to independent repair shops. They also need to recognise the rights of consumers to open everything we own, modify and repair our stuff, and unlock the software in our products.
Software upgrades can be incompatible with older models and force people to buy new products when they expire.
Apple took this further in April 2018 when they disabled all iPhone 8s that had had their screens repaired by independent repair shops. Manufacturers can also control access to the diagnostic software needed to troubleshoot problems, limiting who can repair them.
The final tactic is to use warranties and terms and conditions to advise against or forbid certain actions, like opening the device to fix it.
Sony has various stickers that must be broken to open a Playstation 4 that specifically state that tampering with them invalidates the warranty. Although legally dubious, these signposts are an effective deterrent for people trying to repair their gadgets, and force them through the official repair chain.
“We urgently need legislation that forces manufacturers to design products to improve their repairability, make spare parts available to everyone at reasonable costs, update software responsibly, and not abuse terms and conditions”.