The latest Right to Repair advocate? President Joe Biden.
From Main Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, people just want to fix their stuff.
Across the country, people are demanding the ability to extend the life of their products — without having to rely on whoever they bought them from. They’re tired of tossing their otherwise-good electronics into the scrap heap because of a broken screen or aging battery. They don’t want to be pressured into buying a new device. Farmers are sick of waiting on dealers to fix their tractors while their crops potentially go bad. Amidst the pandemic, doctors and patients alike were horrified that hospital repair technicians couldn’t fix broken ventilators because they aren’t equipped with the needed tools.
Our Right to Repair campaign attempts to solve these problems. In a year full of victories — an FTC endorsement, a New York State Senate passage and the introduction of a bill in Congress — our campaign is primed for its biggest win yet: an executive order signed by President Joe Biden.
Exact details of the order are yet to come. But how did we get here?
States are the “engine” of the Right to Repair campaign
In 2015, four states introduced Right to Repair legislation. More states have joined the cause since — 27 states had active bills in 2021, and 41 states have considered legislation at some point in the past five years.
Behind each bill, teams of scrappy advocates — led by the PIRGs, iFixit and Repair.org — have supported the effort to reduce electronic waste and the corporate practices that drive it. Coalitions include teenagers who fixed Chromebooks so kids could Zoom into remote classrooms during lockdowns, farmers who faced breakdowns and serious delays during critical planting and harvesting seasons, and hospital repair technicians who can’t provide their patients the care they need because they don’t have access to a password required to diagnose a problem with a ventilator and authorize the repair once the diagnosis is done.
These people are our society’s fixers — people who will not tolerate broken goods or a broken repair system. By backing Right to Repair legislation in red, blue and purple states from Maine to Missouri to Hawaii, advocates aim to fix state law.
We’ve worked closely with these folks to topple the barriers to repair they currently face, and we’re working to alert both the public and decision makers about the growing repair problem. Everyone from iPhone owners to farmers to hospital technicians should be able to repair the equipment that they bought and own.
At least as important as the impact on people’s quality of life and finances, there’s a serious environmental toll when we have to buy new instead of repairing and refurbishing. Americans toss 416,000 cell phones each day. If we held on to our phones for one more year on average, the emissions reductions would be equivalent to taking 636,000 cars off the road for a year.
This message has wide appeal; polling has shown that people overwhelmingly support Right to Repair, regardless of political leaning.
Manufacturers continue to stand in the way, however, because they profit from the constant churn of new devices. Collecting rent in the form of service contracts pads the bottom line, so the world’s biggest businesses continue to work against new repair protections.
In fact, companies worth a combined $10.7 trillion are lobbying against Right to Repair. Whether under their own name, like Apple in 2016 and Microsoft in 2019, or as a part of industry groups such as AdvaMed and TechNet, manufacturer opposition to state Right to Repair bills is a given.
Up against opposition money and lobbying power, we’ve continued to show up with our coalition of plucky advocates.
Those plucky advocates secured a big victory in New York last month, when the state Senate passed its Right to Repair bill with a 51-12 vote. That’s the first time a bill including both consumer technology and agricultural equipment cleared a state chamber.
The state bill even impacted Congress: U.S. Rep. Joe Morelle took the bill he championed in the New York Assembly with him to the House of Representatives.
Our research puts Deere in the Headlights
Farmers have been one of the loudest and most compelling groups calling for Right to Repair reforms. Their struggles — including months-long delays and breakdowns during the most critical times of the year — have been prominently featured in the early coverage of President Biden’s order.
In our recent report, Deere in the Headlights, we looked at both personal stories and how the computerized systems in modern tractors work. We highlighted just how integral software is to the repair process. Without access to the right software tools, farmers are totally reliant on the dealership.
But we didn’t stop there. The availability of those computerized repair tools was up for debate: manufacturers claimed they were widely available, while farmers insisted they were not. So I called Deere dealerships across the country to see if I could buy these tools myself. Not only could I not buy them — many dealer representatives told me they didn’t even exist.
These findings and the resulting coverage from VICE injected a new fervor into the call for the right to repair farm equipment.
After President Biden signs the order, what comes next?
The executive order addressing Right to Repair will reach President Biden’s desk any day now. Reporting suggests that it will emphasize the president’s support for the policy and direct the FTC to make rules to enable independent repair of devices across industries by cracking down on anti-competitive practices.
Does that mean we declare victory?
In some ways, yes: support from the Oval Office and the start of a rulemaking progress demonstrate the power of this movement and the inevitability of Right to Repair reforms. That’s something to celebrate.
But rulemaking can be a lengthy procedure. Farmers, biomedical engineers working on hospital equipment, independent repairers and our planet can’t afford to wait that long. That’s why we will continue to push for bills in states across the country until every barrier to independent repair is abolished.
Long story short: We have a new tool, but we won’t stop until this problem is fixed.
Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair, PIRG
Kevin leads U.S. PIRG's work on agricultural and medical Right to Repair. His research has demonstrated how tractor makers limit farmer repair choice, and has worked with more than 100 farmers from all over the country to advance legislation. His work has been published and covered by the Wall Street Journal, NPR, Reuters and more.