This post is by Janet Gunter and Ugo Vallauri, co-founders of the Restart Project.
A new poll by YouGov shows that more people in Britain would like to repair their smartphones (47 per cent), as opposed to those who would rather get a new one (45 per cent). For laptops, a strong majority (58 per cent) would prefer to repair rather than replace.
Now is a good to time to remember that Green Alliance’s research has revealed 72 per cent of Britons believe the government should intervene to make products easier to repair and recycle. And this new YouGov data reveals crucial barriers to repair where government intervention could be decisive. Two of these are cost and convenience.
People are put off by the cost of repair
The YouGov poll finds, “Half of Brits who say they would not repair their device if it became necessary (53 per cent) cite cost as one of the reasons”. And there are a number different factors affecting cost:
– Artificially high cost of spare parts
Anti-competitive practices contribute to this. Many electronics manufacturers make no secret of the fact that they restrict access to genuine spare parts for their products. In white goods and appliances, on the other hand, there is a healthy market of genuine spare parts. And third party companies are competing to sell them.
This is simply not the case in the electronics sector. DIY-ers and independent professionals cannot find genuine spare parts. Often refurbished or reused parts are the only option, but even these are made expensive as quality assurance adds to the cost. And some companies, like Apple, are weaponising copyright and attempting to prevent the use of refurbished parts.
Access to genuine spare parts is one of the rallying cries of the ‘right to repair’ movement. The European Commission will discuss ecodesign regulations for smartphones from 2021, including access to spare parts and repair information.
Will the UK government adopt similar regulations? It’s hard to be optimistic, based on the current lack of firm commitment on adopting similar EU provisions for appliances. And access to spare parts is just the first hurdle, we are already preparing for a struggle for affordable, genuine spare parts.
– The role of VAT and tax
Tax adds to the cost of repair when it could be used instead to encourage job creation in the repair sector. In the UK, repairs to luxury yachts and private aircraft are zero-rated for VAT. Not so for household products, like electronics, or even other methods of transport, like bikes. European countries have lowered VAT on repairs for certain products. This was already possible as a member of the EU and it is easier now than ever for the UK to do.
– Perceived (and real) obsolescence
In the poll, the same number that cited cost as the reason they would not repair said their motivation to replace was: “my device is old anyway”.
Incessant marketing by electronics manufacturers is a powerful factor. But it’s not the only one. How much perceived or real obsolescence is down to the fact that many users experience their smartphones losing software and security support? Over 40 per cent of Android users were stuck on insecure, unsupported software, according to the latest data released from Google in 2019. Or take, for instance, ‘Batterygate’ when Apple throttled the performance of mobiles without informing users?
Could the comparatively low motivation of Britons to repair their tablets (only 40 per cent would do so) come down to some of these factors? Along with the cost of replacing a battery or repairing a screen? Neither of these factors come into play with laptops to the same degree.
The government has announced it will introduce legislation to require manufacturers of internet ‘connected devices’ to tell shoppers how long they will provide software support. Why can’t the same be done for mobiles, the connected device in our pockets?
Convenience is another major factor
The YouGov poll finds that other typical reasons for discarding a device instead of repairing it are general inconvenience (27 per cent), not having a device during the repair (16 per cent) and the time it would take to get it fixed (12 per cent).
When a mobile breaks, owners look to manufacturers for repairs. That’s natural. But authorised repair centres often cite long wait times and have complicated processes that involve posting a product. As they make profit from selling new devices, manufacturers have little incentive to provide more convenient repair services.
Independent repair services offer a more convenient, immediate solution as they are more local. But they have become harder to find online, as Google has been suppressing their advertisements since last year. Could this be because Google is both a vendor of mobiles, and a maintainer of a profitable mobile OS, found on 74 per cent of the world’s smartphones?
Also, just like it can be a challenge to find a good independent garage or bike shop, it can be daunting to find a reliable independent electronics repairer. We’ve been working on this in London by creating a Repair Directory. We currently list 100+ businesses in over 12 boroughs based on three simple criteria: a trading address; at least 80 per cent positive reviews; and at least one month warranty on all repairs.
We’re looking to expand this service to other places. Local authorities and waste authorities across the country should have an interest in helping local people to find a repair option easily and prevent gadgets going to waste. And this investment would create value and jobs.
The government can easily help to overcome the barriers
So for every reason given in the poll for why people don’t repair their electronic devices, there is scope for the government to take action. On cost, it can and should require access to affordable genuine spare parts, as Europe is working towards, and reduce VAT on repairs, as it has for boats and aircraft. In relation to perceived (and real) obsolescence, it could extend its proposal on connected devices to smartphones, requiring manufacturers to state how long they will provide software support. And, lastly, on convenience, access to information on where to repair needs to become as simple as where to recycle, the government could play a role in this at both the national and local level.