Chances are you’re reading this on a cell phone, tablet, or computer that you plunked down a good chunk of change to buy. But if you’ve had that pricey hardware for a while, you know how they can start to get a little slow. And instead of focusing on fixing their old products, the tech giants are busy churning out new ones with the same short life cycle in mind.
Now a global movement of grassroots tinkerers want to rethink the tech economy starting with the devices we already own. In short, they want to repair old devices, rather than always buying new ones.
As momentum grows around the world for the “circular economy,” repair enthusiasts and consumer advocates hope to reverse engineer the throwaway economy with a new restoration culture. The central ethos is to empower consumers as producers, giving them tools and technical skills to fix what’s broken. Even more than recycling e-junk—which, at best, simply diverts trash from landfills—this form of “upcycling” wholly avoids waste, encourages supply-chain transparency, and has the political value of liberating products from copyright and patent rules as users reclaim control of their machines.
The virtuous circle of recovery via repair, however, runs counter to Big Tech’s profit streams, which are fueled by monopolies of planned obsolescence. Since the smartphones and other gadgets dominating the market are basically designed for disposability, and product lines turn over every few months, why bother refurbishing? Not to mention the other barriers to a more sustainable gadget culture, like limitations on warranties. Many products also contain embedded software that, because of overly restrictive licensing agreements, could block consumers from using their hardware the way they want, to repair it when it’s fixed, or to allow others to operate it—and this affects not just pre-programmed electronics like mobile phones but also everyday household appliances now manufactured with digital features, like thermostats, smoke alarms, even toys.
The Repair Association—a network of repair activists ranging from small-scale service providers to hobbyists—is campaigning to unscrew technology through “right-to-repair” policies. Proposed Fair Repair bills in several states would mandate that manufacturers provide purchasers with the same “diagnostic and repair information” that they give to their own proprietary servicers. The principle could apply to other forms of technology like cars and farming equipment, medical devices, or newfangled “Internet of Things” appliances. Repair advocates also seek an overhaul of federal patent and copyright restrictions in order to prevent the digital economy from being colonized by intellectual-property restrictions, such as “end-use license agreements” that bar unlocking of smartphones.
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Such moves would not, as the industry would have you believe, preempt future product innovation; rather, enabling self-fixing stimulates creativity. If tech giants like Apple want to live up to their “social responsibility” brand hype, they can’t rely on a business model based on maximizing profits through maximum waste and resource exploitation.
In recent years, some manufacturers have greened their image by offering proprietary e-waste recycling, including collecting old products for reprocessing into raw materials. But the industry’s self-governed standards for “green” certification typically neglect the question of repair or reuse, which advocates see as the greenest, even zero-waste, option. Processing e-waste may recover little real value from junked hardware if precious minerals or metals cannot be cost-effectively extracted from, say, a microprocessor rescued from a dumpster in China.
“There has been too much focus on recycling as a benefit goal of its own,” Repair Association co-founder Gay Gordon-Byrne says via e-mail. “Recycling for raw materials is an admission of failure of durability…. Consumers are not being given the opportunity of extended use, or of selling or donating their used products to downstream users.”
According to an analysis of circular economic production by the MacArthur Foundation, extension of smartphone life through circular production chains would yield both environmental and economic benefits: Recycling and refurbishing 95 percent of total production would spare the atmosphere some 3 million tons of carbon emissions. And since Europe’s smartphone market relies on non-EU manufacturing, reabsorbing materials would offset the international trade deficit by up to $2 billion, in lieu of brand-new imports.
The Repair Association’s analysis of industry-wide recycling standards suggests that currently even the greenest aspects of the electronics industry have generally ignored repair as a way to reduce overconsumption and waste, according to a recent analysis of industry certification systems for environmental sustainability.
Most new designs include strong adhesive, non-replaceable batteries, non-upgradeable components, proprietary screws, and hard-to-open outer cases. Moreover, owners, recyclers, and refurbishers don’t have access to manufacturers’ repair and disassembly manuals for these devices—reducing the economic viability of reuse.
Tech corporations often cite “trade secrets” or warn that making technology too transparent could lead to hacking risks. But the Repair Association says that the industry’s main purpose is extracting maximum profits after the point of sale.
“Manufacturers have a commercial interest in blocking repair because, without repair, they have a new product sales opportunity with any failure,” according to Gordon-Byrne. Besides, companies “have a vested interest in reducing their cost of production—which creates incentives towards use of the most minimally acceptable specs for parts and the most minimal use of labor. Glue is cheaper than screws.”
The repair association argues that any meaningful industry-wide recycling code must incorporate self-repair rather than just another costly industrial recycling process (which in many cases carries its own pollution and energy burdens), and give higher ratings to products that are built to last beyond next autumn.
Building in reparability can involve simple design features, like cases that allow for battery replacement, or just free instructions for DIY repair as an alternative to a formal service plan.
The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed repairers’ rights in landmark litigation that dismantled Lexmark’s ink hegemony, which based its production chain on a model of disposable, irreplaceable toner cartridges that effectively prevented users from refilling cartridges (despite offering an elaborate recycling procedure for spent cartridges as part of its “environmental responsibility” scheme) under the threat of being sued for patent infringement. The court ruled this stricture exceeded the bounds of Lexmark’s patent law, because once a product is sold to a consumer, it is “no longer within the limits of the monopoly and instead becomes the private individual property of the purchaser, with the rights and benefits that come along with ownership.”
Hailing the ruling as a check on the monopolization of corporate knowledge, Electronic Frontier Foundation proclaimed that “ownership of a patent or copyright should not be a hunting license that allows an owner to control and destroy any business that threatens their profits.”
Some progressive producers are also countering the disposability model. Fairphone, for example, is an alternative smartphone brand designed specifically for circularity, with eco-friendly features like easily reparable mechanics and recyclable material to reduce overall carbon consumption.
By detaching users from the profit chain, the right-to-repair movement provides an alternative path to reclaiming the means of production. For some, performing repair work that adds value could lead to skilled-job opportunities. Reviving the craft of tinkering could even rejigger the education system by encouraging training in the service of open innovation, not just neoliberal monopoly. Ultimately, repair culture revolves around homegrown ingenuity: the philosophy that people are richer when we empower ourselves to do more with less.