26 July 2021

Rediscovering the Right to Repair

Written by Published in Environment

The UN and UK have recently introduced a ‘Right to Repair Act’, marking a distinct step in recognising the need to shift to more efficient and sustainable consumption and production. The act legally requires white goods manufacturers to provide spare parts for all their products.

The right to repair act can be seen as one of the most promising steps in recent years to towards a more circular economy: a term that has gathered increased attention as an alternative model to the unsustainable, linear model of consumption. Crucially, the circular economy focuses on maximising the life-cycle of resources and reducing waste. The task of implementing the circular economy into mainstream culture crucially relies on both logistical and cultural steps to making circular innovations both possible and - equally importantly - desirable. 

Growing concern among consumers over the unsustainable rates of consumption have seen promising progress in Circular economy. This includes both a growing ‘recommerce’ landscape- including the increasing popularity of second hand, vintage and charity shops as an alternative to fast-fashion outlets - alongside design innovations and services seeking to extend the lifecycle resources. 

One such example of this is the increasingly popular pop-up ‘repair’ café, offering customers the tools and supported expertise to fix items rather than throwing them away and replacing them.

Crucially, unlike the traditional repair services, these community repair cafés frequently encourage customers to watch and learn from volunteers, in recognition that a simple lack of confidence in our own repairing skills constitutes a significant barrier to extending the life of our possessions. As the saying goes, ‘you give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’.

White goods picture

These cafes have frequently observed the fundamental practical barrier to repairing: most items are simply not designed to be repaired. What can be seen as derived from growing demand for cheap manufacturing, the increasingly flimsy and inseparable components in many products from electronics to children toys, often make repairing an impossible task. It is this observation that highlights the need for a circular approach to be embedded from a design and manufacturing level. 

Within technology in particular, where items can be rendered unusable through the malfunctioning of a single component, innovations such as Fairphone are pioneering the way forward through offering a molecular design approach to their products. Through the ability to remove and replace single ‘molecules’ with a simple screwdriver- such as the camera, for example - the lifecycle of the phone can be vastly extended, with a process so simple it can be carried out from home. It is this premise that underpins the recent Right to Repair Act. 

So, what does this mean for consumers?

Put simply, the new law requires manufacturers of white goods are legally required to provide replacement parts for their products. It will mean that consumers have access to purchase replacement parts for those that require simple at-home repairs, whilst providing third-party professional repairers with an extended number of parts that require more technical procedures. Crucially, the law recognises the right of individuals to repair their own items, rather than being at the mercy of manufacturing companies who might refuse to repair (or conversely, benefit from it financially), profiting further of the market-driven obsolescence of their products. 

The UK introduced the Right to Repair act on the 8th of July, offering a two-year grace period to allow companies to make the appropriate transition. The law specifies that products have to be available for a minimum of 7 years after the appliance stops being manufactured.

Whilst the Act has already been lauded by many, its practical realisation of finer details will provide further indication of its impact. 

Making circularity desirable

Instilling an improved culture of repairing requires not only the practical means by which to make repairing possible, but desirable, easy and efficient. It raises the question: how do we make circularity the most appealing option?

Firstly, there is the question of cost. In the past, opting to repair any given appliance has often been nearly equal to - and in some cases, superseded - the cost of replacing the entire appliance outright. This is partly due to technically challenging process of repairing, rather than being solely a reflection of the material cost of replacement parts. The Right to Repair Act has not currently specified costing regulations; we can dare to hope that it is in line with one of the fundamental pillars of the Right to Repair that ‘spare parts and repair services need to be affordable’, not least given that a the intended ease of repairing removes the cost of manufacturing repair servicing.

Cost and ease aside, the need for significant cultural shift should not be underestimated as a driver of behaviour. The antidote to the current status-quo of consumerism and throw-away culture is a society that values the preservation of resources more than it values keeping up with the Jones’ (or Kardashians): a 21st century reimagining of the ‘make-do-and-mend’ culture of post second world war. In our relentless pursuit of ‘newness’, The Right to Repair Act marks a promising chance for a cultural reassessment of our right and responsibility to extend the life-cycle of our own possessions. 

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Looking forward

Currently, the right to repair act applies selectively to white goods, including fridges, dishwashers and washing machines. The improved circularity of such goods offers significant potential for reducing large amounts of appliance waste. 

Appliance waste can be regarded as more of a logistical problem than a cultural one; it is the inaccessibility or cost of replacement parts that has created the obsolescence of white goods, perhaps more so than the relentless desire for the latest washing machine.

The real test of our cultural receptiveness to the premise of the Right to Repair act will become evident if similar regulations are implemented into the realms of smaller electronics and appliances, where keeping up with the latest trends and models is more prevalent. 

More time is needed to assess how successful the practical implementation of the Right to Repair Act will be, and the subsequent behavioural change it will ensue. Alongside the yet-to-be confirmed details, a societal reimagining of our current consumption habits are vital. We might now have the ‘right’ to repair, but it will be in the required cultural shift that the practice of repairing will be fully realised; the right to repair act is just the beginning.

Right to Repair.

You can also read: The New DIY: Repair Cafés

About the author

 Harriet MatthewsHarriet Matthews is a first-class honours arts graduate from the University of Leeds, with a passion for the ways in which sustainability intersects with arts, culture, media and sociology. She currently works at a forest school in Brighton and enjoys working with young children to encourage their understanding and embodied experience of the natural world.


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