It's Time to Stand Up for Our Right to Repair

We should not be limited to repair by manufacturers' unwillingness to provide access.

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Public Domain. MaxPixel

Repair is a deeply environmental act. It prolongs the lifespan of an item and reduces demand for new, conserving resources and saving money. It keeps items out of landfills, which decreases the risk of leaching chemicals and heavy metals, and spares developing nations from having to deal with a surplus of unwanted goods in unsafe conditions. It incentivizes quality production, decreases toxic mining, and creates jobs in independent repair shops.

The problem is manufacturers of many major technologies, from smartphones to computers to tractors to cars, actively inhibit repair. They do this by withholding manuals, software, computer codes, and parts, to a point where it's often easier and cheaper to replace an item than to fix it.

This obscenely consumerist practice needs to end. The 'Right to Repair' movement is gaining traction in the United States, even becoming an election issue in 2012 when Massachusetts voters overrode car makers, forcing them to provide diagnostic and safety information for vehicle owners to repair their cars.

In an article for The Simple Dollar, Drew Housman lists several major companies currently blocking repairs. Apple is the most notorious, having introduced proprietary screws on their iPhones that mean they cannot be repaired at non-Apple shops. (The iPad is rated one of the worst for repair, thanks to gobs of adhesive holding everything in place.) John Deere does not allow anyone but its own technicians to repair its sophisticated tractor computers, saying it would "lead to rampant intellectual property theft." Nikon stopped selling replacement parts to its cameras in 2012, meaning you have to go to an authorized dealer. Toshiba recently pulled its repair manuals offline., a right-to-repair advocate, describes an electronics recycler in Minnesota that can only legally repair about 14 percent of the items it receives in donations -- "because they cannot get the manuals, diagnostics, tools, parts, and firmware to reuse them." These are not major fixes that need to be done; they are basic tasks, like screen and battery replacements, etc.

It is bizarre that non-repairability is the norm for technological devices, and yet imagine the outrage if other items had equivalent built-in obsolescence. iFixit gives some beautiful perspective: "Would you buy a car if it was illegal to replace the tires? Would you buy a bike if you couldn't fix the chain?" The idea is outrageous, of course.

broken iPhone display
 MaxPixel/Public Domain

Aside from the obvious philosophical question of what it means to own something, the environmental implications of a non-repairing society must be taken into consideration. With repair rates so low, there is tremendous waste every year. From,

"If you put every blue whale alive today on one side of a scale and one year of U.S. end-of-life electronic products on the other, the end-of-life electronic products would be heavier."

Keep that in mind the next time you're in the market for a new device. Research which brands and models are most conducive to repair. iFixit has great lists with repairability scores for items such as tablets (view here). In the U.S., Motorola has become the first smartphone company to sell DIY repair kits to customers. If you're in Europe, check out the Fairphone.

Consider buying used. There are literally thousands upon thousands of devices out there that are still perfectly good, just less sexy than the latest models -- like the iPhone 6s. As Melissa Breyer wrote for Treehugger, the 6s is still a revolutionary phone, regardless of Apple's "annual seduction dance," even if it's no longer available in stores.

Find a local Repair Café where you can go to learn how to fix things. Join the online iFixit community, which can provide manuals and advice from experts on how to go about doing your own repairs.

Go without. I was stunned recently when I saw that both my aunt and uncle, who are tech-savvy individuals, had given up their iPhones and gone back to basic flip phones. I don't think I've ever seen someone 'go back' like that before, but they are happy with the change. It's simpler, more disconnected, better for the environment, and yet still serves the basic function of maintaining communication when needed.

We all need to consume less, and a big part of that is relearning how to fix the things we own. A simple accident should be a simple fix, and it's time we demanded that.