If there is to be human civilization in the 22nd century, then one of the main stories of the 21st will be the shift from a consumer economy to a regenerative economy. The practice of extracting resources, making and using goods and then throwing them away has to give way to something more circular, where the full lifecycle of a product is considered. Repair is a big part of that.
Take the mobile phone in my pocket. It is a sealed unit. If any single part of it fails, the whole thing is useless. I can’t even take out the battery and replace it. Repair is impossible. It is designed to be replaced wholesale, as part of an ongoing process of regular upgrading.
Compare that to the Fairphone 3, released this month. It is modular, and all the spare parts you might need can be ordered straight off the website. Drop it and crack the case, and you can buy another one. Spilt your tea into the speaker? You can order a new speaker unit and plug it in yourself.
That’s where all technology ought to be heading. Repair helps to prolong the life of our appliances and gadgets, stewarding resources better and avoiding waste. It avoids the CO2 involved in disposal and in creating new items. It keeps costs down for users, and gives them more choice over whether they upgrade or stick with technology they like and that is familiar. The logic applies to our phones, computers, televisions, microwaves, kitchen gadgets and washing machines. We need to be able to repair them.
So there was some good news this week as the EU agreed new rules on the right to repair. From 2021, manufacturers of washing machines, dishwashers and fridges will have to support products with spare parts for 10 years. They will have to make key components easy to remove and replace.
They have been discussing this for a couple of years and campaigners haven’t got everything they hoped for. It doesn’t cover many categories of goods, and spare parts only have to be sold to professional repairers. There’s no guarantee you’d be able to buy the parts to repair things yourself.
Still, the new rules should help to keep appliances in circulation for longer, and it may begin to reverse the trend towards shorter appliance life spans. Planned obsolescence will be curbed a little. We may begin to see the return of repair businesses, which are increasingly rare. And with other parts of the world also investigating the right to repair, including several US states, we’ll be hearing more about this in future.