This post is by Janet Gunter, communications lead and co-founder of The Restart Project.
We’re hearing a lot about reducing meat eating, flying and other high-carbon behaviours as COP26 gets going in the UK. But there’s one topic which is still getting very little attention from policy makers or the media, and that is: our voracious consumption of consumer goods.
As it turns out, taking action to allow people to use products for longer is one of the most publicly popular policy measures to reduce our carbon impact. In a recent YouGov poll that The Restart Project commissioned in Great Britain, an overwhelming majority (81 per cent) supported an extension of the right to repair for electronics, such as smartphones and laptops, design for repair, access to spare parts and repair documentation. And those we asked cut right across party political divides and demographics. This matches, and even surpasses, polling in North America and Europe. Simply put, the right to repair is hugely popular.
Most people are frustrated by the throwaway economy
People are very frustrated with the cost and waste built into the system. Many have given up trying to repair their products, but not everyone has. Those who do try are stymied by various barriers. Our YouGov poll showed 30 per cent of Britons who threw away or replaced a broken electronic device only did so after being unable to repair it themselves, or because professional repair was either too expensive or impossible. Even at our free community repair events, called Restart Parties, 47 per cent of repairs are not completed on the day. This is mostly down to bad design and a lack of access to spare parts.
In July, the UK government implemented the first ever measures requiring design for repair of washing machines, dishwashers, fridges and TVs. These ecodesign measures, set out by the European Union with UK support, also require access to spare parts and repair documentation by professionals. They set a good precedent but are not yet the broad right to repair we urgently need. Europe is moving ahead of us, with plans to expand these rules to new products, like laptops, mobiles and tablets. Whereas, in the UK, Defra and BEIS have been promoting a glacially slow consultation on doing the same, while big tech and industry are pouring millions into lobbying against the right to repair across the world.
There are plenty of new jobs in repair
Repairable products are not just better for consumers, they create jobs. A recent report by Green Alliance suggests that remanufacturing and repair work could generate work for more than 450,000 people in the UK by 2035. We’re part of the European Right to Repair campaign, which is increasingly gaining support from businesses, including in the UK. These businesses are part of the reuse and repair economy, and are poised to expand and create jobs, but they need more government action to keep repair competitive.
And it’s not just businesses that need more. Our poll shows widespread support for right to repair to be extended to community repair groups (like repair cafés) and consumers. Seventy eight per cent of respondents who would support an expansion of the right to repair to more products say consumers and community repair groups should have the same or more rights than repair shops. The measures announced in July only give repair shops and professional repairers access to a wide range of spare parts and repair manuals, not to consumers or community repairers, like the newly launched Community Repair Network.
Thousands have signed a petition for change
Since July, thousands have signed The Restart Project’s petition to ‘Give everyone the real right to repair’, asking for it to be extended to everyone and more products, and to lower the cost of VAT for repairs.
Aside from the troubling fact that the UK is still the second highest producer of electronic waste in the world per capita, according to recent UN data, our throwaway economy has huge carbon impacts. If we take into account our ‘consumption emissions’ embodied in imported goods, which we currently don’t count as our own, UK emissions almost double.
Fixing the throwaway problem could have huge positive carbon impacts. In 2018, Green Alliance, CIEMAP and the University of Cardiff modelled the carbon impacts of popular measures to stop this colossal waste of resources. If the government took action to extend product lifetimes and improve their design, it would reduce emissions by 26.2 million tonnes a year. This is more than a fifth of the UK’s annual transport emissions.
The Climate Change Committee has observed that the government is highly reliant on new, emerging technologies to meet UK carbon reduction commitments. Perhaps this is because it is frightened that behaviour change measures will be unpopular. But when it comes to the everyday technology already in our pockets, living rooms and on our desks, there is resounding evidence that most of us want to be able to repair it and keep it for longer, preventing emissions at scale.