Campaigners wary of EU's right to repair rules

The European Commission's bid to tackle e-waste has been given a cool reception from environmentalists.

Nick Wood

March 23, 2023

3 Min Read
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The European Commission’s bid to tackle e-waste has been given a cool reception from environmentalists.

Under the proposed rules introduced on Wednesday, sellers would be legally required to offer to repair products still covered by a guarantee, unless repair is more expensive than replacement. For products not covered by a guarantee, manufacturers would still be obliged to offer repairs for certain products that are technically repairable under EU law, like washing machines or TVs.

The Commission also wants members to develop nationwide portals to help consumers find local repair services and sellers of refurbished products. To protect consumers from cowboy repair shops, the EU wants to introduce quality standards for repair services, so people can feel assured about any work that is done to their possessions.

However, as they stand, the rules will not apply immediately to smartphones and tablets, two of the biggest sources of e-waste. These devices have much shorter replacement cycles compared to washing machines, vacuum cleaners, TVs and laptops.

According to a survey by Virgin Media O2 last November, there are 15 million unused phones cluttering up UK households. And while they are designed to withstand a bit of rough treatment, when they do stop working – or something other than the screen breaks – there is not much a customer can do except buy a new or refurbished model.

On that note, the market for refurbished devices is booming. Electronics retailer Currys last month revealed that 80% of refurbished products are sold within a week of hitting the shelf. Analyst firm Counterpoint noted last year that the global market for refurbished smartphones grew 15% in 2021.

While the EU said smartphones and tablets will be covered by its proposals “soon” – which is more than a little ambiguous – it nonetheless feels like a missed opportunity not to include them from the outset.

Meanwhile, campaign group Right to Repair welcomed the proposals as a step in the right direction, but said they don’t go far enough to address the cost of repairs.

“Requiring manufacturers to provide a repair service does not mean that it will be affordable,” the group said in a statement on Wednesday.

Right to Repair also noted that the proposals don’t clarify who’s job it is to verify whether a repair is more affordable than a replacement, and what the methodology for that should be.

Indeed, one of the reasons replacement is favoured over repair is because it is more cost effective for an OEM to simply locate and ship a new product from a warehouse than it is to allocate the time and labour – and the customer service resources – to repairing and returning an individual customer’s device.

Another problem, said Right to Repair, is the lack of competition that OEMs face from independent repairers.

“As OEMs determine the price of spare parts and are able to prevent use of third party parts via software serialisation, they have very little to no competitive pressure from other repairers. Therefore if the competitive disadvantage of independent repairers is not addressed in the further negotiations of the proposal, OEMs will continue to have great control of repair, which won’t help to reduce repair prices,” the group said.

“We see as highly problematic that our demands for a truly universal Right to Repair were ignored in the proposal, including universal access to affordable spare parts, repair manuals and diagnostic tools; bans on all anti-repair practices, and measures actively ensuring the affordability of repair,” Right to Repair continued. “Failing to grant consumers horizontal and fair access to repair, the Commission is set to keep wasting precious resources in a growing mountain of hazardous e-waste.”


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About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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