Cracked your smartphone screen? Is the battery in your tablet on its last legs? Perhaps your coffee maker or vacuum is held together with one-way screws?
Usually, it means a couple of things. Either take the product back to the manufacturer for repair, or cut your losses and buy a replacement, and an almost-fixable product ends up in landfill.
Worst still, often the products aren’t even repairable – they are designed to be replaced if any part breaks. Not only is this situation bad for consumers, it’s also bad for the planet. What has been missing from this picture is a ‘right to repair’ for consumers.
A ‘right to repair’ refers to a consumer’s ability to have faulty goods repaired at a competitive price by a manufacturer, a third party, or in some instances, self-repair, using available replacement parts and having access to information to make the repairs.
In the current marketplace, consumers are being increasingly locked out of repairing their products because manufacturers don’t allow third parties to repair them, or they aren’t designing products that can be repaired.
So what does this issue look like in practice? Grab your mobile phone and have a look at it right now. Is it completely sealed so the battery cannot be accessed without a special tool or prying open the adhesive on the unit? Is your tablet or computer the same?
Many consumers are becoming resigned to the fact that if a device’s battery starts to diminish, we’ll have to replace the whole device, rather than seek a replacement. If a home appliance experiences a fault, we may as well just buy a new one rather than have it repaired – particularly if it involves a long and bureaucratic process with the manufacturer, or the cost of repair seems exorbitant.
But consumers, as well as our planet, are the losers in this market environment.
Australians are among the highest users of technology products, generating around 25 kilograms of e-waste per capita each year. And Canberrans also hold the disappointing title of having one of the biggest ecological footprints per capita in the country.
The good news is that people are fighting back against this trend, and this has coalesced into a movement called “the right to repair”. There’s a groundswell of support for an improved right to repair goods. This is often led by consumers themselves, who are concerned about the plight of our planet’s environment, and the sheer volume of products ending up in landfill.
The European Union and the United States are already introducing rights to repair. In Australia, the right to repair is in its infancy, but the ACT is leading the charge.
Last week, as the ACT’s Consumer Affairs Minister, I took the issue of ‘right to repair’ to my national counterparts and asked for a national legislative and policy framework approach on ‘right to repair’ to be developed through the Productivity Commission.
This marks the first important steps towards a right to repair in Australia. That said, we still have a fight on our hands to get the Federal Government over the line on this integral part of the ‘war on waste’.
So what would a right to repair look like?
You’d likely see more ‘Repair Cafes’ similar to Canberra Repair Cafe at the Canberra Environment Centre pop up around the capital. You’d be able to buy spare parts for electronics outside of the immediate manufacturer and have access to information on how to fix it. Manufacturers would need to be mindful in product design and in the software so that repairs and upgrades could easily occur.
We would see a reduction in goods going into landfill and greater sustainable consumerism. And, the power would be back in your hands, as the consumer, so you can have a chance at repairing first, before you think to replace.
The ACT has taken the first step to get this work underway at the national level. I hope that a detailed look into this issue by the Productivity Commission will allow the ‘right to repair’ concept to be imported into the Australian context. It’s a complex issue, but the result will be reforms that benefit Australian consumers and improve sustainability.
What do you think about a right to repair? What have your experiences been? Get in touch at RATTENBURY@act.gov.au or via my Facebook page to let me know.
Shane Rattenbury is the ACT Minister for Consumer Affairs.