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Sustainable Consumption and Production Needs The Right to Repair

The Right to Repair campaign pushes for changes to the laws, policies, and industry practices that prevent us from repairing possessions.

The Right to Repair

Repairing our electronics and appliances is rarely easy or inexpensive. Whether it’s because the appropriate parts aren’t available, the only option is to send it to the official manufacturer for a top-dollar repair, or there are other restrictions in the way—people often resort to replacing broken possessions with brand-new versions, rather than repairing them. The range of factors that inhibit repair are vast, contributing to unsustainable consumption patterns with serious implications for both the environment and public health. These obstacles have fuelled frustrations of individuals, repair businesses, and other groups who want to be able to fix and continue to use the electronics that they own.

In response, the Right to Repair movement has emerged in countries across the world. This movement is pushing for transformations to the laws, policies, and practices that currently block or limit repair options, with the goal of providing people with the right to repair their personal belongings or use the services of third-party repair shops. To understand what this means in practice, this blog breaks down the restrictions currently limiting repair options and explains how enabling people to repair their belongings aligns with the system-level changes needed for a sustainable future.

Barriers to Repair

A key focus of the Right to Repair is reforming laws that make it difficult or even illegal to independently repair products with electronic features. A key example is Canada’s Copyright Act, which prohibits the circumvention or “going around” of technological protection measures (TPMs) unless you’re the original manufacturer. TPMs are features of software-enabled products that control access to or use of copyrighted material, such as paywalls or microchips in a gaming console. The issue is that they often need to be circumvented in order to diagnose and repair broken devices. Though it’s intended to protect copyrighted work, this law prevents individuals and businesses from repairing a wide range of products. Canada’s government initiated efforts to change this in 2021 through Bill C-272 which proposes amending the Copyright Act to provide a loophole for the circumvention of TPMs for repair purposes; however, it has yet to go through.

While important, copyright law is not the only obstacle to repair. From tractors, to home appliances, to mobile phones and digital cameras, there are numerous measures that inhibit their repair. These include:

  1. Design features that complicate repair efforts, such as the use of product components that are only compatible with specialized tools owned by the manufacturer, or devices fused with adhesives rather than screws.

  2. Limited access to spare product parts, tools, information or materials that are exclusively available through the manufacturer and necessary for repair.

  3. Policies and contracts such as End User License Agreements which can limit or prohibit activities necessary for repair, or only allow for products to be taken to authorized repair providers.

Overcoming these diverse barriers to repair through law and policy reform is a complex task, and one that will need to simultaneously address concerns about maintaining the security and safety of repaired devices as well as protections for intellectual property rights. For example, product manufacturers have voiced concerns that people could be injured while fixing or using an independently repaired product, or claimed that the release of electronic repair data might threaten consumers’ cyber-security.

Moving Towards a Right to Repair

Establishing a Right to Repair means making it easier and less expensive to repair our broken possessions, such as phones, computers, or even tractors. This is a key step to reducing the social and environmental burdens of our consumption and production. By enabling people to keep their belongings for much longer, the Right to Repair can support the shift away from throwaway culture, curtail consumption and waste, and effect widespread environmental benefits (see LP7). This is a particularly pressing issue as we see quantities of electronic waste (e-waste) rising to approximately 50 million tonnes per year, posing risks to human health and the environment when its improperly disposed of. Though recycling might help to alleviate the pressure of our consumption, that itself demands a system that makes it easy for individuals to recycle their electronics, adequate recycling infrastructure, and the funding or market demand to make it financially feasible. Even if these belongings were broken down and recycled to some extent, the products we purchase as replacements are likely produced through additional resource extraction, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution, before the product even reaches the store.

In order to establish the Right to Repair, several critical changes need to be made, including ending design for programmed obsolescence, enabling access to information and materials necessary for repair, and a legal framework that promotes repair and ensures compliance (this connects to LP7, Innovation & Investment). Through establishing laws and infrastructure that encourage repair, we could help to unleash latent values associated with owning things that last (see LP3, Latent Values of Responsibility).

Of course, there are also actions that need to be taken to reduce and address unsustainable patterns of consumption, such as tackling inequalities, supporting the education and empowerment of women, and creating policy and infrastructure that enables well-being without overconsumption (see LP2, Consumption). Also key will be the transformation of dominant values in society—such as the value of luxury and the desire to consistently have the latest product—towards those conducive with well-being and sustainability.

Written by Brooke Sutherland of the CoSphere team.

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