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The UK’s right to repair law already needs repairing

As software and hardware grows ever more entwined, typically at the behest of manufacturers looking for greater control over user experience (and spending), the right to repair has become a major issue.

The UK has just made a big stride to protect consumers’ right to repair with new legislation, but, for many, it’s missing some key components. Here’s the full picture of the right-to-repair standard, and what the UK is doing about it.

What is right to repair?

Right to repair is pretty much what it says on the tin – it’s about a consumer’s right to repair goods they purchase. Some manufacturers would prefer to repair the devices they sell to you themselves, rather than allow you or a third party to get to the bottom of the issue. This lets them set the price and potentially just provide you with a replacement should they so choose, even if you’d prefer to try and fix it.

When it comes to right to repair laws, it is about governments legislating to give consumers the choice to carry out repairs – either themselves or using a third party – and to prevent something called “planned obsolescence”.

Planned obsolescence involves goods becoming unusable after a certain length of time with no method of repair. It’s an often intentional strategy by manufacturers to require you to buy something new rather than having the ability to maintain your current product.

“Planned obsolescence” isn’t only bad for consumers but it’s bad for the environment, too. E-waste has risen 21 per cent between 2014 and 2019, amounting to 53.6 million metric tonnes – with the practice of Amazon devices being destroyed to make way for the next new thing hitting headlines recently.

It’s for these reasons that legislators around the world are looking at how to tackle this issue – and the UK has now taken its most significant step yet.

Does the UK have a right to repair law?

It does now. The UK introduced a “right to repair” law on July 8. However, it does give manufacturers a two-year window to make the necessary changes to abide by the new legislation.

“The tougher standards coming in today will ensure more of our electrical goods can be fixed rather than have to be thrown away when they stop working, putting more money back in the pockets of consumers, as we build back greener,” says Anne Marie Trevelyan, the minister of state for energy, on the new law.

What does the right to repair law do?

The new law legally requires manufacturers to make spare parts available to consumers and third-party companies. The legislation aims to extend the life cycle of a range of devices and appliances by up to ten years.

Alongside these changes, the government has modified energy efficiency standards – with the aim of cutting energy bills by around £75 per year and reducing carbon emissions.

What products are likely to be affected?

The new right to repair law doesn’t cover all electronic devices and appliances, however, so many people may find themselves disappointed.

The legislation currently covers dishwashers, washing machines and washer-dryers, refrigeration appliances as well as televisions and electronic displays. Some non-consumer products are also included, like electric motors, retail refrigerators, light sources and more.

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However, despite what you might assume, “electronic displays” does not cover smartphones and laptops – shielding Apple from these laws in the UK. It’s not just these popular gadgets that aren’t included either, with cookers, microwaves, hobs and tumble dryers all missing from the list, too.

Why is Apple against the right to repair?

Right-to-repair legislation in the US has arguably been part of the zeitgeist for longer than over here in the UK, and with a larger focus. In fact, on Friday, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order addressing this very issue. Teardown and repair experts iFixit have also led the charge online over recent years, and the right-to-repair concept stems from a law passed in 2012 focused on automobiles, called the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act.

As such, one company known for its tight hardware and software integration has sought to stave off the emergence of further right-to-repair laws. Apple, the company in question, argues that these laws could lead to sub-standard repairs and consumers harming themselves when they try to repair devices. In France, Apple has already been required to act as a result of right to repair-related legislation – now listing product repairability scores on its French online store.

In 2021 alone, 27 US states have considered new right to repair laws. However, with fierce opposition from lobbyists backed by Apple and other big tech firms, more than half have come to nothing. US Democrat Mia Gregerson even claimed Apple offered to endorse repair programs at local colleges if a bill was dismissed.

It’s schemes like the above that Apple has touted as a middle ground. The company launched an Independent Repair Program in 2019 – requiring third-party repairs to become “Apple certified” and abide by certain terms in exchange for access to spare parts.

However, iFixit has been critical of the program, saying: “The Independent Repair Provider (IRP) program seems like a concession in the Right to Repair battle. But after five months, we’re still sceptical of its true intent – and so are repair shop owners. When the details of this program leaked last spring, we said it felt ‘more like a PR move or grumbling compliance than an actual attempt to solve the problem’ of Apple’s death grip on the repair market. Now that the program has been active for a few months, that seems like a very real possibility.”

The support for the new UK right-to-repair legislation isn’t ubiquitous either, with one company telling the BBC that the new rules could make white goods more expensive.

How will the law change in future?

While any future modifications or separate pieces of legislation can’t be predicted for certain, it seems ludicrous that some of the most prominent tech categories are excluded by this law – smartphones and laptops – and any serious addressing of e-waste concerns must look at including these.

The time frame of up to 10 years could also be improved, with home appliances that can last beyond this which could just as easily be repaired with available spare parts, too.

Head of resource policy at Green Alliance, Libby Peake, is sceptical of the lengths the new law actually goes to. Peake doesn’t think it’s accurate to say this legislation provides a “legal right to repair” and that there’s “no guarantee that spare parts and repair services will be affordable”.

Providing stronger language to address these concerns on timeframe, range of devices and its effectiveness are ways this bill could evolve. As Peake says, the new rules “represent a small, first step towards giving people the long-lasting repairable products they want".

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This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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