New Report Blasts Tech Companies For Limiting Device Repairability

When your fridge breaks down, you typically call someone to repair it. The same goes for your washer and dryer. So why is it that when a smartphone breaks, the immediate response is to completely replace it?

A new report released today by the Repair Association details how the technology industry is undermining and fighting against the environmentally sound initiatives that cut down on overall manufacturing waste. This is done through practices like making devices harder or even more cumbersome to repair manually and strategically placing industry representatives on green standards boards.

Written by Repair Association board member Marc Schaffer, the report describes how some of the most massive companies on the planet, including Apple and HP, use their influence to tower over smaller groups and organizations that regulate and control how devices are manufactured. The largest companies can essentially decide their own regulations, “approve” them for public use, and then ignore long-term problems such as repairability.

This might sound like a lot of companies are skirting the law, but these regulations aren’t even mandated by law themselves. Many green standards boards are primarily made up of those within the industry instead of watchdogs and academia. Those standards boards are all organized under the Green Electronics Council, which oversees the process of branding electronics with a bronze, silver or gold sticker for environmental sustainability. That branding process is called the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT. These loaded boards make it easy for outside influence to affect the rating system, as evident by the first key finding from the Repair Association report listed below.

“Manufacturers and other IT industry members—including chemical and plastics trade groups—hold so many positions on green electronics standards boards that they can resist leadership standards and instead approve criteria they can easily achieve.”

Representatives from electronic manufacturers—Apple, Samsung, Sony and more—hold 41 per cent of green standards board seats, meaning they have an overwhelming power to vote down and change motions that do not suit their business interests. These corporate-held seats serve one purpose: reduce and remove unnecessary costs.

It is easy to pick on Apple for an electronics repairability report because they have one of the worst histories when it comes to electronic reuse. Apple users cannot replace their own iPhone batteries, screen replacements used to cost $99 (cheaper now, but only if you have a warranty) and there are far fewer spots to repair an iPhone than there is to buy a new one.

Many consumers have been fighting for “right to repair” laws, asking for the ability to take apart their devices and swap out parts without voiding a warranty or suffering consequences. If this were to come to fruition, electronics manufacturers would lose out on huge sums of money, because consumers could just source a new part instead of a new unit altogether. Apple, Sony and more consistently block updates to product design criteria that would influence the design of products more suited for easy repair and recycling.

A regular excuse made by large manufacturers is that releasing device repair schematics would enable the theft of design elements and lead to widespread copycats. However, cars and major appliances regularly release proprietary service documentation, and those industries seem to be doing just fine.

In the long run, far too many products are earning the “gold” standard of the Green Electronics Council.

“Any standard that substantially reflects the current market is neither rigorous nor effective,” reads the report.

If too many new products are immediately hitting the highest standard, that means standards need to change.

 From the Repair Association Report, The Green Electronics Council 2011 Environmental Report details the growth of the unique products listed in the EPEAT registry between 2006 and 2011.
The Green Electronics Council 2011 Environmental Report details the growth of the unique products listed in the EPEAT registry between 2006 and 2011.

The report ends with several recommendations to change how standards are measured and how electronic manufacturers address concerns of repairability. Schaffer urges boards to update criteria and challenge large companies to innovate rather than ignore, to diversify the boards themselves to allow for real representation from all kinds of sustainability groups, let unauthorized repair centres flourish and more.

It is now up to consumers to decide if they want to tinker with and repair their broken devices or toss them away for a brand new model.