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Are Corporate Repairability Pledges Enough?
Public pressure, not saintly CEO's, are making companies more environmentally friendly.
This past week, Lenovo announced that 4 in 5 of its devices would be repairable by 2025, sparking positive press for the $4.5 billion corporation. Pledges make for great headlines, but if we focus solely on them we can miss the forest for the trees. The problem with the narrative around these types of pledges, whether on repairability or other environmental focused pledges, is they often give the impression these companies are proactively doing good rather than caving to public (or legal) pressure.
Whether it was the calls by corporations to “invest in equity” after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, environmental commitments in the face of climate chaos, or promises of more repairable products—the track record of corporate America in keeping the promises it purports is mixed at best. In the world of repair, there have been flurries of commitments from companies focusing on the repairability of specific product lines, the carbon footprint of their devices, as well as lengthening the length of time devices will receive software support. All are positives as they support devices lasting longer, but how and why companies act this way is of equal importance because it reveals the underlying motivations driving these decisions.
Public commitments come from public pressure
Not only are companies coming out in support of repair in the abstract, they are actually outright supporting right to repair in some cases, as well as using sneakier tactics like non-binding agreements known as MOU’s to present themselves as supporting repair without committing to much of anything.
A cynical reading of these repair pledges would view these companies as advantageously riding a wave of pro-repair and pro-environmental sentiment. A more optimistic read, however, is that public pressure is working to change corporate behavior. Whether it’s Google removing death dates on its Chromebooks or selling parts for 7 years on newer Pixel phones, there are clear advantages to pressuring corporations, as Paul Kunert at the Register writes about Lenovo’s commitment.
“Lenovo and other vendors aren't going to make hardware easier to fix out of the goodness of their own hearts: the European Council last month started to update EU rules to ensure consumers are better informed about the lifespan and repairability of the tech devices they buy. The requirements should be finalized before June next year.”
Whether it’s the EU or statehouses in the U.S. passing right to repair requirements, companies are being forced to change their ways, and executives won’t miss the opportunity to get some good press along the way. Even Google’s decision on extending their Chromebook support was more of a fight than the company being proactive—with advocacy group U.S. PIRG leading a coalition (sending over 10,000 letters) to force the giant’s hand.
Expanding what right-to-repair means
To provide a more impartial view that cuts through corporate PR strategies, independent reviewers like iFixit take major companies such as Lenovo and Apple and compare the repairability of their products. France has gone even further by creating national repairability scores for electronics and appliances. However, the reality is that most people aren't really paying attention to these repairability efforts.
Even though Lenovo aims to make 80% of its devices user-repairable by 2025, the current adoption of self-repair poses challenges. A recent 2021 survey by Consumer Reports shows that only a small 16% of people in the U.S. who had phone issues in the last five years chose to repair them at home or have them fixed professionally. And while companies like Fairphone or Framework produce highly repairable products, they remain niche players in the market.
This lack of interest in personal repair highlights the significant hurdles in promoting repair in a society that's used to throwing things away. With new phone models hitting the market every year and a lack of ongoing software support broadly, even devices with perfectly good hardware can become obsolete in the eyes of manufacturers, labeled as "vintage".
In the face of these statistics, it becomes clear that repair scores are the beginning, not the end, when it comes to reducing the waste and forced obsolescence of electronics in the western industrialized world which is propped up by the labor and toil of workers thousands of miles from the electronics shops we buy devices from. Policies like requiring parts, extending software support, and forcing particular designs will be crucial in making repair more accessible and economical. Nor should advocacy end with a focus on availability of parts—it should extend far upstream through design and production.
These pledges didn’t come from a benevolent CEO or business. And if recent trends tell us anything, it’s that forcing corporate hands through public pressure and policy change can ensure that these commitments are strong and long-lasting rather than short-term PR stunts.