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‘Right to repair’ campaign forces rethink by Big Tech

Growing up in 1970s Britain, I was in awe of my great aunt Ruth Tett’s kitchen cabinets. After enduring two world wars and a global economic crisis, she became addicted to hoarding and recycling almost everything she owned.

No old paper bags, twine, ribbon, and pieces of wood, nails, or pieces of cloth were ever thrown away when they could be reused in some form—as clothing, fences, or anything else.

As a teenager, I described this as “being old-fashioned.” Today I would say: “Embracing the Circular Economy”. The instincts my great-aunt upheld due to deprivation are coming back into fashion.

That’s partly because a new wave of environmental activists and sustainability advocates are promoting the goals of the “circular economy” — or consumption based on the reuse of products, by-products, and waste, rather than an endless cycle of resource exploitation.

The term ‘circular economy’ is also being tossed around in the environmental, social and governance movements, with ESG investors urging big companies to show how they uphold this mantra as well.

In other words, the ideas represented in these 1970s kitchen cabinets are creeping into corporate boardrooms.

Consider the Right to Repair movement. A decade ago in Silicon Valley, it was taken for granted that consumers would always embrace the latest versions of digital devices. They would buy upgraded devices when their current ones stopped working or wore out.

This upgrade culture was so ingrained in Western consumer society that technology companies tended to design products on the assumption that they would quickly become obsolete. They used overt and covert strategies to trick consumers into constantly switching their devices. 2020 e.g. Apple agreed to pay $500 million to settle claims that it intentionally slowed down some iPhones as they got older.

No longer. These days, the price of that upgrade mentality is becoming clear: the Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership, which measures electrical and electronic waste, is estimating some 53.6 million tons of products were thrown away in 2019, or 21 percent more than five years earlier. Less than 20 percent of this e-waste has been officially recorded as recycled.

But now a variety of initiatives are underway to try to change consumer and business behavior. University College London’s Big Repair Project is a case in point. It has conducted surveys of the UK public on their attitudes towards their consumer electronics. As the website explains, the aim of the project is “to understand the factors affecting household maintenance and repair (self-performed or through professional services) of household appliances and electronics in the UK”.

The group recently met with technical “manufacturers, the repair community, industry associations and other stakeholders” to develop proposals for UK “right to repair” legislation. This would give consumers the opportunity to force companies to support efforts to recycle old electronic devices.

Separately, ESG activists have filed shareholder motions at the annual meetings of major tech companies to force them to change their strategies.

Last year non-profit organization As You Sow revealed a Petition at Microsoft’s AGM demanding its devices be easier to repair. “Microsoft. . . facilitates early landfilling of its equipment by restricting consumer access to repair equipment,” Kelly McBee, waste program coordinator at As You Sow, told the Financial Times.

The move was the first such shareholder proposal in the United States. And while tech leaders initially dismissed those ideas, Apple’s management took a U-turn late last year to introduce a self-service repair program that would allow customers to purchase Apple-made components to replace worn or defective parts.

Microsoft has taken similar steps, and other tech giants are likely to do the same — not least because the Biden administration said last year it wanted the Federal Trade Commission, the competition regulator, deal with anti-competitive restraints in repair markets. About half of the US states are also considering local legislation in this direction.

Of course, it remains to be seen how many consumers will fall for the upgrade culture. After all, repairing an old iPhone or digital watch is not a simple matter, even when parts are available.

However, environmental activists hope these measures will lead to the emergence of more independent repairers. And last but not least, Apple’s about-face clarifies two important points.

The first is the degree to which large companies are responding to the demands of ESG investors – particularly in relation to regulatory reform.

The second notable lesson is how consumer expectations are changing. Generation X (like me) grew up on the culture of endless upgrades; Today’s millennial and younger generations are throwing themselves back into the future.

If my great-aunt were still alive, she might laugh; the rest of us should cheer.

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