In December of 2018, the European Commission (EC) passed legislation making right-to-repair the law for many home appliances, including washing machines and fridges. The new laws required manufacturers to make parts available to consumers and to repair shops and forbade them from designing parts that could only be installed by proprietary or otherwise unavailable tools. Now, the EC is preparing to release the first draft of legislation about sustainable consumerism, and the lion’s share of this is aimed at making personal technology repairable.
On March 11, 2020, the EC released new guidelines for its Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP), one of the building blocks of the European Green Deal, Europe’s new agenda for sustainable growth. Both the 2018 right-to-repair law and the 2020 extension of that plan have been framed by proponents as environmental concerns as well as financial ones.
The guidelines single out mobile phones, tablets, and other common electronics as a “priority sector” for enforcing right to repair, up to and including the possibility of upgrading, which would be a major blow against the business strategy of planned obsolescence.
“Many products break down too easily, cannot be reused, repaired, or recycled, and are made for single use only,” said Frans Timmermans, executive vice president for the European Green Deal. “With today’s plan we launch action to transform the way products are made and empower consumers to make sustainable choices for their own benefit and that of the environment.
With the new CEAP, “consumers will have access to reliable information on issues such as the reparability and durability of products to help them make environmentally sustainable choices. Consumers will benefit from a true ‘right to repair.’”
A 2015 study carried out by the EC determined that fridges, washing machines, and smartphones were the most important products to be repairable at a consumer level. It was this study that buoyed up the 2018 legislation, but smartphones were left out at the time. Among other reasons, the EC said smartphone technology was evolving too fast to be feasibly included.
Practical obstacles aside, there are also industrial and political minefields to navigate. The whole reason this matter is having to be legislated is that companies don’t want to allow third parties—let alone users themselves—to repair their products. Including smartphones this time around has pitted the EC squarely against tech giants like Apple, Google, and Amazon.