- iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens said the federal government should look into mandatory repairability scores on products as a way to inform consumers and pressure manufacturers to make their products easier to repair by third parties, during a Sept. 21 e-Stewards webinar.
- The Biden administration and Federal Trade Commission have also both supported the right-to-repair movement in recent months. In a May report, the FTC said manufacturers provided “scant evidence” that product design hindering third-party repair is necessary.
- Corporations like Apple and Tesla, along with trade organizations representing electronics manufacturers, say product designs that limit repair are meant to protect their copyright on proprietary software as well as consumer safety. They’ve opposed actions taken by the FTC this summer to improve repairability oversight.
To reduce the risk of fires and help mitigate growing levels of e-waste, manufacturers should allow consumers to easily repair their electronics and help keep products in use for as long as possible, members of the repair advocacy group iFixit said during the virtual event.
Wiens specifically called out manufacturers that have relied on tactics like proprietary screws or glued-together parts in common products to stymie repair shops and individual repairers. He said manufacturers use those methods to make more money and this often leads consumers to buy entirely new products instead of extending the lifespan of their laptops, coffeemakers or other electronics via repair.
The group isn’t alone in their objections. On Monday, the shareholder group Green Century partnered with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and filed resolutions with John Deere and Apple, requesting the companies account for their “anti-competitive repair policies.”
The shareholder group’s president said Apple is being the Cupertino-based corporation is being “disingenuous” in promoting environmental sustainability pledges while contributing to e-waste, the fastest-growing waste stream worldwide.
“The company risks losing its reputation as a climate leader if it does not cease its anti-repair practices,” Green Century President Leslie Samuelrich said in a statement.
Meanwhile, recyclers have encountered growing issues with electronics in recent years. Fires at waste and recycling facilities are an increasingly common and hazardous issue. This is due in part to the inclusion of lithium-ion batteries and other materials that are too costly to remove and recycle before e-scrap is shredded, or may be in products that end up in MRFs via curbside recycling collection.
“Not only are these fires dangerous and expensive for recycling facilities, they’re also an environmental horror,” said Elizabeth Chamberlain, iFixit’s director of sustainability.
Trade associations representing major manufacturers have largely rejected concerns about repair policies. When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Consumer Technology Association cited a letter the group sent to the FTC in July saying it favored a “collaborative” approach to repair guidelines as opposed to formal rules.
This year saw more than 25 states considering legislation making repairs easier for electronics, targeting consumer products like phones, laptops and even farm equipment. In June, the New York Senate passed a right-to-repair law that applied broadly to all manufacturers, but the legislative session ended before it could be passed by the assembly and sent to the governor.
The tide of legislation has occurred as the federal government takes an increasingly critical look at the ways manufacturers have made their own products difficult to repair. During a 2019 workshop with the FTC, many corporations argued the barriers they implement for repairs are necessary to ensure consumer safety and protect copyrighted code.
But the FTC refuted those claims in a report signed by all commissioners in May, a rare sign of consensus. The report said the manufacturers’ claims relied on "scant evidence" and found that repair restrictions were problematic and burdensome for consumers, especially lower-income consumers who rely on smartphones for internet access.
In July, President Joe Biden issued an executive order designed to boost competition in the manufacturing sector and directed the FTC to rule against "anticompetitive restrictions on using independent repair shops or doing DIY repairs."
The order has opened the door for an enhanced federal role in protecting consumers’ ability to repair their electronics, iFixit Policy Director Kerry Sheehan said. She expects new legislation to be introduced in Congress as soon as next year formally stating repair is never illegal under copyright law.
Meanwhile, Wiens, the group’s CEO, said he’s tried working with manufacturers on federal efforts in the past to no avail. He described his experience attempting to craft green environmental standard for smartphones in a collaborative process with the U.S. EPA, where Apple refused to even participate in the process unless its own proprietary screwdriver was included in a list of "standard tools" for repairability.
"We engaged in a collaborative way and what we found was that the manufacturers were not negotiating in good faith," Wiens said. “The representatives that the manufacturers were sending to these negotiations were told not to compromise on a single iota on a single thing."
Looking ahead, Wiens expects more stringent standards to be enacted at a state level. He pointed to recently-passed right-to-repair laws in France and the EU as proof that there is a way to engage all stakeholders and allow consumers to make better decisions.
"If they want to come to the table and negotiate on a national bill, if we can go to Congress with consensus, then maybe we could see Congress pass something," Wiens said. "Otherwise, we’re going to see state bills."