Photo by Dan-Cristian Pădureț on Unsplash (edited)

Why 2021 will be an important year on the way towards more sustainable consumer products.

Ben Bengler
Jan 28 · 8 min read

Prologue.

In a not so distant future — say 2030 — we may recall with bewilderment a period of time that began somewhen in the 2010s: In the years to come we were sold “premium” consumer electronics products that were — despite their staggering prices — mediocre quality at best with hardly any viable chance to repair them in case they broke. Even worse, they were deliberately engineered in ways that made them extremely difficult and expensive to repair, if possible at all. The extreme means some manufacturer took to achieve this — such as dedicated built-in hardware that discourages battery repair or actively blocks some third-party repairs — will make us wonder how all of that was even legal..

Well, 2021 might be an important year towards such a more sustainable potential future. In this article I will reflect on how EU commission’s right-to-repair rules — with a first set going into effect this March 1st — as part of EU’s Ecodesign Directive should be a first step on this way.

‘Right to Repair’ makes it into EU legislation — and more to come.

On March 1st, 2021, a first set of product design requirements of the European Commission’s Ecodesign Directive will go into effect [1]. For the first time, these will also include right to repair aspects.

This will obligate manufacturers of electrical appliances including displays, household refrigerators, dish washers, household washing-machines and washer-dryers to facilitate products repair by ensuring the availability of spare parts as well as setting energy efficiency standards. For example, TV manufacturers will have to ensure availability of important components such as internal power supplies and capacitors for seven years and ship them within 15 working days.

It’s only the beginning — Next up: Phones, tablets and laptops.

Most importantly, there are clear indications that the European commission will extend their eco-design directive to cover phones, tablets and laptops [2], and through a recent vote of the European Parliament the European Commission obtained full support to do so [3].

Hence it is likely that in the near future, similar rules may apply to mobile phones, tablets and laptops, namely that key components should be replaceable, and manufacturers should provide spare parts and repair information. The true significance of this becomes palpable if you picture the inside of an Apple MacBook Pro, equipped with its proprietary SSD, non-upgradeable RAM, and a glued-down lithium-ion battery. So how will manufacturers deal with such requirements in the case those become legally binding?

Industry’s old story that the status quo is only for our best.

Considering that the practice of planned obsolesce is as old as the consumer electronics industry itself (most notably, the 1920’s Phoebus cartel amongst the main lightbulb manufacturers inventing planned obsolesce by conspiring on significantly shortening a bulb’s lifespan [4]), being obliged by law to provide spares and repair information isn’t greeted with much excitement by industry associations.

For example, Achim Berg, the president of Bitkom, Germany’s IT sector association argued that smartphones could not be so flat, light and powerful, waterproof and dust-proof if they were designed in such a way that they can be easily opened, and that this might pose serious safety risks [5]. Such arguments however can be at least partly contradicted by looking at existing products: for example, Proske et al. [6] point out that a Samsung Galaxy S4 (easily removable battery) and Galaxy S7 (not readily removable battery) are both 8mm thick. Another example is Samsung Galaxy Xcover 4 which features replaceable battery and is rated at IP68 for dust/water resistance at a thickness of a reasonable 9.7mm (and folks, it’s from early 2017)[7].

So it’s hard to avoid the impression that industries’ “can’t be / shouldn’t be done” arguments more often than not are rather a “we choose not to do so”. Why investing in advancing design and production methods when simpler/cheaper building options are sufficient or even beneficial to keep up consumption of fast and ever-changing product lines? So what potential impact may a legal obligation to make key components replaceable have?

Spare ≠ repair & the new tricks of the trade

Availability of spares does not automatically rule out obsolesce — as long as repair costs are disproportionately high compared to the original price failure or damage of key components such as a smartphone’s touch display still render the device economically obsolete [6].

In recent years, common manufacturing and design techniques made it more and more difficult to carry out repairs: permanent snap fits, with a high likelihood to break when attempting to undo them, unibody enclosures or proprietary screws or tools, along with practices such as gluing batteries into the housing or placing them at difficult to reach places such as beneath other complex and sensitive components, make access and repair difficult and time-consuming [8]. This results in high repair fees and makes self-repair via third-party repair kits a daunting and risky endeavour which only very few get involved in.

Manufacturers also started discouraging or hindering third-party or self-repair via dedicated hardware features; e.g. recent iPhone XR, XS are reported to detect whenever the battery is chanced and — even if a genuine Apple battery is used — will prompt you with a “service” message of a degraded battery that needs changing. The only way around this is paying an Apple Authorized Service Provider to do the change and use their proprietary software tool to “re-lock” the new battery to your phone [9]. Recently, new MacBooks were even found to contain hardware features which enable Apple to lock down the device if unauthorized repairs are detected [10]

Given this excrescences, legislation could make a considerable difference — e.g. the obligation that key components must be replaceable, along with availability of service manuals, and without the need of proprietary tools or software, could not only boost repairability but also people’s willingness to do so by enabling more economic repair options and services.

The caveat: Repairability alone not likely to slow the well-oiled “buy-use-toss-replace” machine.

The prospects of EU’s extension of right to repair legislation to cover phones, tablets and laptops is promising and vital for more sustainable products to choose from, but — and this is a big one — reparability alone is not likely to significantly counteract the vastly increasing quantity and speed of discard of consumer electronics. To put this in perspective, in 2018 151 million phones were thrown away in the US alone. [11]

And the simple reason for this is that most phones are replaced when still functioning []. That is to say, the industry successfully established other factors to play a far more important role in peoples’ decision to switch their device to a new one. Here, industries’ constant fuelling of desire for new features and trends is the strongest driver [6], making consumers feel that their current device is already outdated (psychological obsolesce) — cleverly amplified by manufacturers’ PR and marketing strategies such as staging incremental improvements as groundbreaking novelties.

Additionally, this is enforced by subsidised devices through service contracts often resulting in early replacement of functioning devices — typically well aligned with the industry’s fast product generation cycles. In this way, the industry managed to pull the biggest trick of all: To sell us disposables of inferior quality as premium products for a premium price — again and again. Here, it’s important to remind ourselves that it hasn’t always been this way — for example, before the 2012 Retina MacBook Pro, Apple’s premium MacBook Pro line had been modular, repairable, and upgradeable [12].

Seeding synergies for change

Despite the previous paragraph’s rather sobering facts, I still see the prospect of EU’s eco-design directive being expanded to cover phones, tablets and laptops as a very promising step. While it may not have an immediate effect on the ‘fast-forward consumption model, it lays important foundations to be built on; by improving customer choice and enabling new services and business models around repair and reuse.

Importantly, it ties in well with other initiatives that are on their way — such as a scoring system the EU is currently working on [13] to provide customers with improved product information including expected lifetime and reparability through mandatory labelling. In France, for example, such a repairability index [14] just came into effect on January 1st, 2021, and appears on smart phones, washing machines, TVs, computers and lawn mowers. It is a 0–10 score calculated based on criteria including: ease of disassembly, price and availability of spare parts and access to repair information. For the first time, product repairability information is brought to mainstream customer attention as a potential factor for their purchase decision.

Slowly but surely, sustainability factors also find their way into consumer technology reviews [15] alongside the traditional product performance criteria. While this trend is still in its infancy, more and more wider uptake can be expected once an EU-wide index is established.

Repairability makes sustainability possible, now it’s imperative to make sustainability desirable.

Now, can you imagine the impact it would have if — in a few year down the line — every Youtube influencer would mention sustainability aspects just as naturally as design and technology features? If sustainability would have become part of lifestyle — not in a superficial or greenwashing way — but in a way that really speaks to people, that excites them because of it’s cleverness, beauty and value proposition for both themselves and the environment?

I think this is where the biggest potential lies for a departure from the current “buy-use-toss-replace” model; only if we succeed to find and promote ways that make sustainable consumer products truly desirable for the mainstream, the large players will follow reacting to shifting consumer demands . Of course, this shift cannot be achieved through legislation, but legislation can (and must) help to lay the foundations by forcing manufacturers to change their current practices. Then it’s on us as businesses, society and individuals to champion and built on these foundations to push sustainability more and more to the centre of what makes us perceive consumer electronics as innovative and desirable.

References:

1. The new ecodesign measures explained, European Commission, October 1, 2019. Retrieved Januar 26, 2021.

2. EU plans ‘right to repair’ rules for phones and tablets, Guardian, March 11, 2020. Retrieved Januar 26, 2021.

3. European Parliament vote takes another big step toward ‘right to repair’ rules, The Verge, November 25, 2020. Retrieved Januar 26, 2021.

4. The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy, IEEE Spectrum, September 24, 2014. Retrieved Januar 26, 2021.

5. Bitkom zum „Recht auf Reparatur“, Bitkom.org, March 11, 2020. Retrieved Januar 26, 2021.

6. M. Proske, J. Winzer, M. Marwede, N. F. Nissen and K. Lang, “Obsolescence of electronics — the example of smartphones,” , Berlin, 2016, pp. 1–8.

7. Samsung Galaxy Xcover 4 Info, gsmarena. Retrieved Januar 26, 2021.

8. Why Apple and other tech companies are fighting to keep devices hard to repair, The Verge, August 3, 2017. Retrieved Januar 26, 2021.

9. Apple Is Locking iPhone Batteries to Discourage Repair, ifixit.com, August 7, 2019. Retrieved Januar 26, 2021.

10. Apple confirms its T2 security chip blocks some third-party repairs of new Macs, The Verge, November 12, 2018. Retrieved Januar 26, 2021.

11. Americans Toss 151 Million Phones A Year. What If We Could Repair Them Instead?, wbur.org, December 11, 2018. Retrieved Januar 26, 2021.

12. Electronics Standards Are In Need of Repair, Mark Schaffer on repair.org, August 3, 2017. Retrieved Januar 26, 2021.

13. Analysis and development of a scoring system for repair and upgrade of products, European Commission, 2019. Retrieved Januar 26, 2021.

14. French repairability index: what to expect in January?, repair.org, November 3, 2020. Retrieved Januar 26, 2021.

15. How we are changing the way we rate sustainability of consumer electronics, Guardian, December 29, 2020. Retrieved Januar 26, 2021.

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