Tech brands must prepare for the newness backlash

category - devices
category - sustainability
sector - media & technology
type - opinion
Why the gathering momentum of the Right to Repair movement could spell major disruption for the culture of newness perpetuated by tech giants.

Cracked screens, badly-performing batteries and broken buttons have meant retirement for my past smartphones. It’s also meant that they’re added to a growing collection of defunct electrical goods in my kitchen drawer. Frustratingly, most of the components work fine. At the very least, I should be able to assemble one working phone by cannibalising the others. But finding the repair manuals is not easy, nor is finding spare parts, and even if they were revived, would they support current operating systems? Probably not.

The current state of play sees manufacturers of electrical goods eager to defend their portion of the market by gluing parts together during assembly, not producing spare parts, and refusing to publish repair manuals. Essentially, tech brands have made it as hard as they can for consumers to repair a product or extend its lifespan without having to buy something. Android, which provides the operating system for most of the world’s phones, does not support security on a phone older than two years. The fact that it took a lawsuit for Apple to offer battery replacements for its iPod shows the lengths that companies will go to maintain the transience of their goods.

Obsolescence is inherent and essential to these products. With the value of tech goods in mind, you can see why brands do it – the electrical goods market is set to be worth $1.28 trillion (£1.08tn, €1.13tn) by 2025, with mobile phones alone accounting for a third of that.
Frustration has been growing, however, with eco-conscious consumers, grassroots organisations and legislators gathering in their droves behind the Right to Repair movement, which has made significant gains in 2019 alone. In the US, for example, California recently became the 20th state to adopt the Right to Repair bill. Not only does the movement uphold that the unrelenting pace of manufacturing and newness from brands is unsustainable – creating mountains of e-waste, the fastest-growing waste stream in the world – there is a growing argument that it is alienating consumers in terms of affordability and access.

Published by:

19 June 2019

Author: Ben Westlake

Image: Fairphone



Ugo Vallauri, co-founder of the Restart Project, helps to unpack the issue. This UK-based social enterprise runs regular Restart Parties where people teach each other how to repair their broken and slow devices such as tablets, toasters and iPhones.

He believes that the limitations around tech repairs, and the lack of facilities for self-repair, has been informed by major brands. ‘The only reason [manufacturers] want to limit the amount of repair – and they will never admit this – is to benefit from people throwing their products away that could otherwise be repaired,’ he states. ‘Manufacturers are doing the bare minimum and therefore the minimum is dictated by the law.’

This is why, Vallauri argues, developments in repairs legislation are crucial. In Europe, the minimum that brands currently work to it set to shift from 2021, with new laws that will necessitate 'design for disassembly' for various electrical products.

Some critics of the Right to Repair movement argue that growing success and promotion of the movement could stifle innovation and raise issues around intellectual property. Trade association Digital Europe has stated that, ‘The draft regulations limit market access, deviate from internationally-recognised best practices and compromise intellectual property.’

In my view, brands risk alienating current and future customers by perpetuating drive for newness, while law-makers gradually work to dictate their future manufacturing behaviours. Instead they should take this as an opportunity to innovate in news ways; by being sensitive to consumers’ environmental concerns and their dissatisfaction with products that are currently built to fail.

Ben Westlake is community change professional and a freelance writer on emerging technologies and innovation. For more on how technology brands' values can become fit for the future, explore our Morality Recoded macrotrend.

'New laws will soon necessitate design for ‘disassembly’ for various electrical products'

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