We have a massive stuff problem. We don’t need most of it and too much of it is built to be disposable, which keeps us buying more things all the time. It’s true: They just don’t make ‘em like they used to. Also true: companies don’t make it as easy to repair your things as they used to.
Our Right to Repair movement is gaining momentum nationwide as a response to companies’ destructive efforts to keep us hooked on consuming through planned obsolescence. They restrict repair, sell hardware designed to break, and code software so that it expires. Companies should do more to design their products to last with software and hardware that facilitate repair, repurposing, and durability.
Since too many companies won’t do it themselves, governments at the local, state and national levels can — and should — take action to push them in the right direction. Here are six things our elected leaders can do to stop planned obsolescence:
1. Let us fix our stuff by passing Right to Repair laws
We should be able to fix our stuff. Not long ago, most consumer goods and business products were easily repaired at home or the local fix-it shop with widely available parts. But more and more, manufacturers of cell phones, medical devices, appliances, and even tractors have implemented legal, digital and physical barriers that impede or even prevent repair. Our movement spurred the passage of first-in-the-nation Right to Repair laws in New York and Colorado in 2022. Already in 2023, more than 10 states have introduced their own Right to Repair bills. Once we win the Right to Repair on a broader scale and have the tools, software, and schematics needed to fix our stuff, the government can do more to stop the cycle that promotes disposable electronics.
2. Give consumers the right to know if a product is fixable
Consumers should know if the expensive tech they buy is fixable, especially because a high price doesn’t always equate to durability. Since 2021, France has required manufacturers to publish a repair score that rates their products from 0 to 10. Our Failing the Fix report found displaying these simple scores at point of sale, online and in stores, empowers consumers to purchase repairable products and pushes companies to build devices designed to last. We plan to release an updated Failing the Fix report in February 2023.
3. Stop software from handcuffing us to specific manufacturers
When I buy a car, I expect to be able to install basic add-ons such as a roof rack or a trailer hitch. Using software to thwart repair or to limit customers to only brand-authorized products seems to violate the basic idea that once you buy something, it’s yours. I wrote about Tesla’s software lockout of trailer hitches, but Tesla’s conduct is hardly unique. Software enables companies to control customers in ways that historically would have been viewed as deceptive or unfair. Not being able to attach safe, basic accessories to the car that I own—because of software or not—is outrageous. To return the power of property possession to consumers, governments and federal agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could clarify that software lockouts violate existing laws.
4. Require removable batteries so tech isn’t disposable
Manufacturers sometimes glue or attach batteries inside products so buyers can’t remove them. Not only does this limit the lifecycle of the product to that of its fundamentally disposable battery, it also causes fires for recyclers. The European Union recently required all products to be replaceable, and banned battery software lockouts (also called “parts pairing”) to enable repair. Our CES Worst in Show event “awarded” the Ember Mug 2+ with the “Worst in Repairability” award because of its unreplaceable battery. A $200 disposable digital mug is outrageous. We should ban any products with non-removable batteries.
5. Create minimum service dates for access to repair and parts
California has the best consumer warranty law in the country. It requires any legal warranty to provide repair for seven years. Therefore, companies selling in the Golden State have to stock parts for years. Other states could bring their standards up to par with California, or set a new standard by expanding on the European Union’s directive that appliances be serviceable for 10 years. Laptops, phones, tablets and appliances that cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars should be usable and repairable for as long as possible—not disposable due to a lack of spare parts and service information.
6. Protect repurposing older tech for new uses
We can repurpose products when a competitor or third-party creates a reuse or modification tool — something that adds to, or converts the old device such that it can still be used. However, these tools are often the subject of copyright lawsuits. When our phone is no longer able to update, why not use it as a baby monitor or video doorbell? If we want companies to build these repurposing tools, governments need to make it clear that they do not violate copyrights. With legal protections, old tech can live a new life.
Director, Designed to Last Campaign, PIRG
Lucas leads PIRG’s Designed to Last campaign, fighting against planned obsolescence and e-waste and winning concrete policy changes that extend electronic consumer product lifespans, hold manufacturers accountable for forcing upgrades or disposal, and advance paradigm-busting conversations around electronic products. He got his start as a PIRG student volunteer and organizing director where he helped register thousands of voters and win zero waste campaigns to stop plastic pollution. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his partner, where he enjoys perfecting his espresso recipe.