Repairing our way to a circular economy

A look at right-to-repair initiatives that shift the mindset away from "throwaway culture" in favor of a circular economy.

29 April 2024

By: Shawntel Nicole Nieto

HAVE you ever tried getting your smartphone repaired? At a time when nearly everyone owns at least one, you'd think getting the gadget fixed would be as easy as getting a pair of pants altered, for example. But a confluence of factors has made repair probably the least expedient solution for a wonky gadget.

Manufacturers, for one, make it difficult for users to go just about anywhere to have their electronic devices repaired. Some of them insist on certifying a limited roster of independent third-party repair shops and then proceed to impose unreasonable requirements on them, making it a losing enterprise to even offer the service.

On the part of the owners, many realize that having a gadget repaired is even more costly than purchasing a new one. So why even try to extend the device's useful life? And then, of course, there are features and apps that only work on newer operating systems, effectively turning perfectly fine but older mobile phones into paperweights.

These obstacles contribute to the "throwaway culture" that, coupled with consumerism and mass production, has led to an ever-increasing volume of waste.

According to the Deloitte paper "Right to repair: Revolutionizing throwaway culture," discarded repairable goods account for 35 million tons of waste, 30 million tons of resources and 261 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year in the European Union alone. Deloitte's consumer survey found that 40 percent of respondents admit their usual practice is to replace a defective product with a new one. A very small fraction — 7 percent — prefer replacing the product with a used or refurbished one.

The decision to replace rather than repair is estimated to cost nearly $13 billion annually in avoidable expenses, which makes the case for repairing an easy one to argue.

In certain jurisdictions, right-to-repair initiatives have become a key component of promoting sustainable consumption and shifting to a circular economy. These initiatives come in many forms, including fostering a fix-it culture by making repairs convenient and cost-effective for product owners and incentivizing sellers and producers to develop more sustainable products.

In 2022, both the Senate of the Philippines and the House of Representatives filed respective Right to Repair bills with a focus on digital electronic devices. According to the Senate filing, the Philippines is the third-biggest generator of e-waste in the Southeast Asian region. Unfortunately, these badly needed bills have not moved beyond "pending in the committee" in the past two years.

The European Commission, meanwhile, embedded the right to repair in the European Green Deal in 2023 to make it easier and more affordable for consumers to repair goods. Under those rules, warranty terms have been expanded so that if the cost of repair is equal to or less than the cost of replacement, sellers must provide free repair within a reasonable time and without inconveniencing the consumer.

For makers of appliances such as washing machines and TVs, they must offer repair services for five to 10 years, with that obligation being waived only if there is severe damage to the product. Repair shops will also have to provide consumers with a repair information form upon request. This form details the price and key conditions of the repair, making it easier for consumers to compare repair services.

These right-to-repair initiatives are expected to not only have a positive environmental impact but also generate significant economic outcomes through the increased efficiency of the repair sector and substantial cost savings for consumers. But repairability is just one factor in the circular economy framework. Manufacturers must also be willing to shift their mindset towards making products that are more durable, reusable, upgradable, and repairable.

This means designing components that can be easily replaced or upgraded without compromising the entire product. Using accessible and standardized fasteners and connectors on products will simplify the disassembly process, making repairs more user-friendly. Clear documentation and parts labeling will also go a long way toward making sure that even non-experts can identify and address faults. Using materials that are durable and recyclable will help reduce the environmental impact of product maintenance.

It's a lot to ask of manufacturers who have made product obsolescence a part of the business model to generate more sales. But they have to recognize that consumers are changing in response to the climate crisis we are all experiencing. According to a study by a global tech company, 93 percent of Filipino consumers want to lead more sustainable lifestyles, with convenience and affordability being the top drivers for behavioral changes. The repair culture perfectly slots in that aspiration, but it will need institutional support to take root. There's no reason why we can't make it happen.

There was a time when folks took great pride in how long they have had an appliance or furniture that continues to serve its purpose well. You may have been the beneficiary of such durability, inheriting an older relative's sewing machine or a dresser, for example. It's a sensible approach to ownership, and now is a critical time to return to it.

As published in The Manila Times on 29 April 2024. The author is an Assistant Manager with the Risk Advisory team of Deloitte Philippines.

Did you find this useful?