Green co-leaders Sian Berry and Jonathan Bartley have today (21 June) pledged their support to the ‘right to repair’ movement.
The leaders signed the Manchester Declaration, which was published in 2018 by UK community repair organisations, calling on policymakers, product designers and manufacturers to ensure products are easy and affordable to repair.
Think about the last time one of your appliances, be it a laptop, washing machine or mobile phone, stopped working. It could be as simple as a cracked screen or something more complex, like a damaged internal element. You could pay someone to repair it for you, often at an exorbitant cost, or you could try and repair it yourself – but you have no access to spare parts and the manual doesn’t contain enough information.
It is an all-too-common scenario, especially if the product is a few years old, and more often than not leads to a fixable item being thrown out and replaced with something brand new. Of course, the broken item will hopefully be recycled and its parts used in new products – but for the environment, the best option is to keep products in use for as long as possible, cutting down on emissions and waste produced during the manufacturing of new products.
“As consumers, we should have the right to goods made to last, designed so that if an element goes wrong it can be repaired"
Then there’s the problem of so-called ‘planned obsolescence’ – products that are considered to be built to break down, so that consumers are forced to buy new ones every few years when it is not feasible to fix them or keep using them. This is especially relevant to handheld electronics, with companies accused of introducing software updates that slow down older models, encouraging the purchase of new devices. In 2018, after an investigation in Italy, Apple and Samsung were fined €15 million (£13.4 million) in total for this practice.
However, a growing network of citizen repairers and campaigners are making themselves heard, calling on governments and manufacturers to ensure that products last – and that means making repair easy and affordable.
Independent repairers face restrictions
The Manchester Declaration, drafted by 59 repair activists from across the UK, states: ‘We ask UK legislators and decision-makers at all levels, as well as product manufacturers and designers, to stand with us for our Right to Repair, by making repair more accessible and affordable, and ensuring that we adopt product standards making products better supported, well documented and easier to repair by design.’
Berry and Bartley joined repair organisation The Restart Project at the Crystal Palace ‘Library of Things’ in London, where local residents can come to share and borrow expensive and little-used items like drills and projectors, as well as more day-to-day items like lawn mowers or hoovers.
Having access to repair information is crucial for projects like the Library of Things to ensure that the items they share last for as long as possible. The Restart Project helps communities to set up and run ‘Restart Parties’, where people can come together to learn how to fix their broken products – a similar concept to the Repair Cafe movement. Without easy access to spare parts and product manuals, community repair groups – and small-scale independent repair companies – are at a disadvantage, while more money ends up in the hands of corporations.
“Repair Cafes and Restart Parties [are] great examples of communities getting together, supporting each other, sharing skills, creating environmental benefit,” said Berry, “but their work is made unduly difficult by the failure of companies to properly design and make products.”
Bartley added: “We all know how annoying it is when an appliance that we know used to last for decades dies after a few years, when a new computer won’t work with an older printer, when an expensive kitchen appliance becomes useless for the want of a minor part.
“As consumers, we should have the right to goods made to last, designed so that if an element goes wrong it can be repaired (ideally at home or at a repair cafe), that parts will be available when needed and documentation available to assist the repairer.
“There is no technical reason why this shouldn’t be the case. It is companies seeking to maximise profits, to push sales, that are exploiting us all, and trashing the planet. The governments that should be forcing them to act for the common good, producing a circular economy, are generally failing to act.”
EU legislation recognises right to repair
There is some hope that legislative change is coming, with EU legislation approved in January that will oblige manufacturers to make their products easier to repair. The law, part of the EU’s wider Ecodesign Directive, will come into force from April 2021 and will apply to a range of household electronic products including lighting, washing machines, dishwashers and fridges. Manufacturers must ensure that appliances can be easily disassembled and that components can be replaced with commonly-used tools.
It appears that the UK Government will follow the Ecodesign Directive regardless of the outcome of Brexit – it is part of a wider set of revised environmental directives called the Circular Economy Package, which the UK has said it will uphold.
However, there are concerns that this law does not go far enough, with access to repair information and spare parts to be restricted to ‘professional repairers’ and not made available to the general public. The original proposals, made in September 2018, would have made crucial diagrams and manuals accessible to independent repairers and spare parts available to consumers, retailers and repairers for 7-10 years.