After much fanfare earlier this year, the government’s promised ‘right to repair’ regulations finally entered the statute books in July 2021. The right to repair is about a consumer’s right to repair goods they purchase – either themselves or by using a third party. The regulations oblige manufacturers to make spare parts available for dishwashers, washing machines, washer-dryers, dryers, fridges, freezers, and televisions within two years of launching a new model. These spare parts must remain available for up to 10 years.
Designed to counter planned obsolescence by imposing a legal obligation to reuse, recycle and repair, the introduction of new energy efficient standards have also been introduced to make it easier to understand product energy efficiency ratings.
Planned obsolescence involves products becoming unusable after a certain period of time with no method of repair. It can be intentional, so that consumers are required to buy something new rather than being able to repair what they already have. This has obvious, negative impacts on the environment and legislators around the world are looking at how to tackle this issue.
Right to Repair: modest beginnings
Admittedly, from an initial scan, the scope of the regulations is relatively modest: laptops, computers, smart phones and other ‘gadgets’ are not covered and most of the spare parts will only be available for professional repairers to buy and fit.
A BBC report noted that ordinary consumers will be able to buy certain items, such as door hinges, but fitting the majority of spare parts will need more specialised knowledge. It has been pointed out by several commentators that repairing a machine may not be any cheaper than buying a new one as there is no cap on what manufacturers can charge, VAT will apply, and the cost of the actual fitting has to be factored in. Campaigners for more sustainable products say the next stage in the process should allow ordinary citizens to source spare parts themselves along with instructions on how to fit them.
Impact on product designers?
The new rules mean that products need to be designed so that they can be repaired. Product designers may need to rethink the lifespan and performance of certain components and redesign them if they are not repairable.
For example, the new rules are already influencing design decisions in respect of mechanical parts such as connectors, seals and enclosures. Permanent attachments, such as glued joints, are being replaced with separable connections, which are in turn being redesigned to be more accessible.
Are consumers driving the need to go green?
Various consumer movements, including the ‘Right to Repair’ movement, are responsible for a growing shift in the balance of power between consumers and the businesses that design, manufacture and / or sell the products or services they buy. There is more general awareness of the environmentally damaging mountains of waste generated by our consumer society: according to the Green Alliance, the UK generates more electronic waste than any other country in the world except Norway. This knowledge has certainly persuaded governments to be more prescriptive about how products are manufactured, as demonstrated by a number of EU Directives designed to drive up environmental standards. Nonetheless, it remains a moot point whether the UK’s new ‘Right to Repair’ law will persuade more consumers to repair and recycle. No doubt their decision will ultimately depend on the difference between the cost and ease of repairing a product against the cost of replacing it.
UK’s green credentials stay in step with the EU
The UK’s legal ‘right to repair’ is the first solid manifestation of the government’s commitment to embracing a more sustainable, circular consumption, following the EU’s introduction of similar legislation in March. In 2020 the EU adopted a new Circular Economy Action Plan, specifically designed to reduce consumption of raw materials and manufactured goods, noting in its general introduction: “There is only one planet Earth, yet by 2050, the world will be consuming as if there were three.” With the UK hosting COP26 last autumn, the UK government has clearly shown no desire to diverge from EU plans for more sustainable, circular consumption in spite of Brexit. The government’s Ten-Point Plan for a green industrial revolution, published in November 2020, noted: “we will improve energy efficiency standards of household products so they use less energy and materials, helping households and businesses reduce their bills with minimal effort”.
A better deal for consumers?
Whilst the rules claim to restore power and rights to consumers, many commentators have criticised the law as not going far enough in benefitting consumers, both in terms of cost impact and the range of products which are covered by the regulations. Arguably, any serious move to address electronic waste concerns must also look at including laptops and smartphones in the scope of the regulations.
To date, Brexit has not had the impact on consumer law that it has in some other areas of domestic life. Consumer law has not been significantly altered by our exit from the EU as the majority of EU Directives governing that area of legislation have already been incorporated into UK law. Although there is nothing to stop the government from changing the current legislative framework for consumer protection in future, all the indications are that it will continue to implement the environmentally progressive initiatives it signed up to while the UK was still a member of the EU. This includes purporting to give consumers a better deal when it comes to the purchase and maintenance of household products and the reduction of waste. Although the Right to Repair is not particularly radical, it does give consumers time to reflect on the outcome of the choice before them: repair or discard?
This article first appeared in the January 2022 edition of Engineering Designer