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'The Right to Repair'

Repairing a household appliance is always stressful. It can be time consuming and hard to fit into a busy schedule. These issues are further compounded when the household appliance’s warranty has expired; consumers will need to pay for the repair themselves. Typically, it would be cheaper to simply purchase a new appliance, which the consumer does. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it is expensive for consumers, who may not be able to afford sudden, unexpected costs. Secondly, the replacement appliance fuels climate change from the greenhouse gases that are released during the manufacturing process.

In response to this, both the European Union (EU) and several States (at the time of writing, this stands at 18 States) within the US are currently developing proposals that will guarantee a right akin to a ‘right to repair’. Within the EU, there are several proposals on this topic. Essentially, environmental ministers from the EU are attempting to force manufacturers to make goods that last longer and are easier to mend. The EU report can be found in full here. The proposals refer to: lighting, televisions and large home appliances. The measures are intended to reduce volumes of waste. There is a clear emphasis on the need to push manufacturers to make products that are easier to maintain. These manufacturers would also have to offer replacement parts and repair such goods. The proposals seem to have significant backing from EU citizens that were surveyed: 77% preferred to repair as opposed to replacing goods.

The EU Ecodesign Directive, as will be seen, is likely to be both complex and controversial. There is currently no legislation in this field, which increases the level of potential controversy. A breakdown of the stances adopted by each Member State of the EU illustrates this. There are numerous manufacturers that argue that the proposed rules on repairability are ‘too strict’ and will ‘stifle innovation.’ Digital Europe has argued that some requirements are either unrealistic or provide no added value. There are also concerns over the prospective legislation limiting market access, deviating from internationally recognised practices and compromising intellectual property. Despite these concerns, the attempt to regulate the repair of manufactured goods is a welcome step in the right direction in terms of environmental protection. It must be noted that these proposals are nowhere near finished; there is still a significant amount of debate still to be had. As a result, it is plausible that the relevant concerns will be addressed as the legal provisions are fleshed out.

There have also been arguments from the other side; consumer campaign groups say that large manufacturers are able to control the repair of its products. This control is maintained by insisting that products are mended by professionals under the control of manufacturers and not by unapproved shops nor the consumers themselves. This in turn limits the scope of repair services and contributes to the environmental issues. The Ecodesign Directive would allow consumers to have the right to choose who repairs their items for them. One could see this as a move by the EU to open up the market and to foster competition and create new jobs. On the other side of this argument, however, one could raise the point that independent contractors may cause damage to such appliances. As a result, the appliances could be rendered dangerous.

The prospective changes would also tackle the issue of ‘planned obsolescence’. This term describes products that are designed to intentionally break down shortly after their warranty expires. The new legislation will be able to address the accumulation of the large amounts of electronic waste that cannot be disposed of in an environmentally sustainable way.

On top of the above, the Ecodesign Directive encourages manufacturers within the single market to design products that are ‘repair friendly’. Part of this definition refers to products which can be easily broken down into parts and replaced when needed. Part of the justification is that by replacing only the part of a product that breaks down, the amount of electronic waste that is produced each year will be significantly reduced. In turn, this means that there can be a concerted effort on recycling the larger appliances that are unsalvageable.

Whilst the development of and consequent impact from this legislation remains to be seen, it is clear that the UK firms that wish to export to the EU post-March 2019 would need to comply with this legislation. Therefore, it is in the best interests of the UK to remain actively involved in the discussion of this prospective legislation whilst it can.

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