Have you ever shattered your mobile phone screen? Or maybe your washing machine has packed up, and the repair costs so much you might as well buy a new one? Yesterday, national governments of the EU’s 28 member states, including the UK, have endorsed your right to repair these goods, by pledging to make manufacturers design more durable and repairable products.
In the UK, this may be greeted by howls of anguish from the Brexit-supporting media. After all, they have previously claimed that meddling eurocrats are conspiring to ruin your toaster, and that this interference in the market is a hallmark of anti-innovation Europhiles, whose purpose in life is to destroy your freedom by ruining your vacuum cleaner.
Better product standards are a worldwide trend
This is as silly as it is wrong. Actually, rules for more durable and repairable products are a triumph for consumer rights and the environment, and is part of a trend that can be seen across the world: in the United States, four separate states are now debating ‘right to repair’ laws. These are intended to prevent things like Apple’s ‘Error 53’ debacle, which turned £600 iPhones into 72p worth of scrap metal after an upgrade detected ‘unauthorised’ repairs of a faulty button by independent repair shops. Apple reversed course after consumer regulators in the EU and US threatened legal action.
In the United States, voters petitioned their elected representatives to assert their rights over big companies that want to control products even after they’ve been sold. In the EU, similar rules under the so-called ‘circular economy package’ could not have happened without pressure from democratically elected representatives across Europe. Simona Bonafè, the Italian MEP drafting the European Parliament’s report on the circular economy, has pushed the EU to require manufacturers to make a much broader group of products last longer and be designed to be repaired.
The British government has, very quietly, supported these rules, and is happy to use the EU as the forum for making them. Such rules, set for 500 million European consumers, will change global manufacturing standards in a way that 28 sets of fragmented national standards never would. The statement out yesterday, jointly signed by a British minister, actually criticises EU officials for not moving more swiftly.
If we’re in the EU club we have a say in product design
While the Brexit-supporting media claims to be on the side of customers, their narrative of EU opposition plays into the hands of shoddy manufacturers. The EU’s vacuum regulations, which were voted on and supported by the British government, were found by Which? to have made vacuums better at cleaning and much cheaper to run. Opposing rules to make products more repairable would be bad for British companies who already make repairable products and would have a headstart over less innovative manufacturers.
The likeliest outcome of us leaving the EU and its single market is not that global manufacturers would design better products just for the UK. Instead, the UK would become a dumping ground for older, poor quality, designed-for-landfill products that our European neighbours had rejected. A better scenario would be one in which the UK independently decides to adopt EU rules on products, on the basis that they’re good for British consumers.