Columnist Johanna Neumann: Right to Repair vital for protecting consumers and environment 

  • Johanna Neumann FILE PHOTO

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Published: 12/23/2022 2:19:55 PM
Modified: 12/23/2022 2:18:36 PM

Our neighbors in New York state are on the verge of a huge victory for consumers and our environment.

Earlier this year, the New York Assembly and Senate both passed — by overwhelming margins — the Digital Fair Repair Act, which would require manufacturers to provide access to the parts, tools and information needed to fix our own consumer electronics. If Gov. Kathy Hochul signs the bill, New York would become the first state to do so. But she may not sign the legislation.

Why do we need Right to Repair laws?

Instead of building stuff to last, many manufacturers design their products to break down so that consumers have to replace them frequently. Adding insult to injury, many manufacturers of cellphones and watches, medical devices, appliances and even tractors have also erected legal, digital and physical barriers that prevent consumers from doing their own repairs or using independent repair shops.

The result is a massive amount of waste. Electronic waste is now the fastest growing waste stream in the world. It’s not just overseas. Americans purchase about 160 million new smartphones each year — a habit that takes some 23.7 million tons of raw materials to satisfy. Continuing to extract minerals to produce and consume electronics at this rate is simply not sustainable.

Repair reduces waste

According to a 2021 report from Consumer Reports, 1 in 5 smartphone users had to replace their phone sooner than they wanted because they couldn’t find someone able to repair it.

Fixing devices shouldn’t be such a hassle, but manufacturers often block repairs by refusing to make parts or service information available to consumers or independent repair shops. When only the manufacturer has what you need, it can charge whatever it wants or push you to “upgrade” to its latest product instead of fixing what you already own.

New York’s Digital Fair Repair Act would change that. It would require all manufacturers who sell “digital electronic products” within state borders to make tools, parts and instructions for repair available to both consumers and independent shops.

The bill doesn’t solve all our problems. For example, it doesn’t fundamentally challenge the problem of planned obsolescence. And because the final bill was weaker than the original because of amendments pushed by manufacturers, it includes exceptions for home appliances, medical devices and agricultural equipment. Even with those shortcomings, signing the bill into law would be a meaningful step forward for consumers and the environment.

Impacts beyond the Empire State

New York isn’t the only state to consider Right to Repair legislation. In 2020, Massachusetts voters backed Question 1, which required automakers to install a standard open-data platform that lets vehicle owners and independent mechanics access the car’s data required for repair. And earlier this year, Colorado passed a bill ensuring repair rights for powered wheelchairs.

If Gov. Hochul signs the New York bill, manufacturers selling goods there would be required to make repair manuals available there, and it’s likely those manuals would quickly become available worldwide. The law could lead to broad changes in how electronics are designed and maintained not just in New York but around the world.

The clock is ticking

While guaranteeing Right to Repair seems like a straightforward proposition, many manufacturers want to keep pushing consumers to pay for upgrades, so they have been working to get Gov. Hochul to veto the Digital Fair Repair Act.

But, advocates of Right to Repair aren’t letting up. iFixit — a leader in the Right to Repair movement and a popular do-it-yourself website with tens of thousands of repair guides — is now running a billboard in Albany, New York, calling for Gov. Hochul to sign the bill. In addition, Repair.org, U.S. PIRG, NYPIRG, Consumer Reports, Environment New York, the Story of Stuff Project, Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, NRDC, Environmental Action and Electronic Frontier Foundation, have increased their calls for the governor to sign the bill. And the Albany Times-Union has twice editorialized in support of the bill. Gov. Hochul has until Jan. 10, 2023, to sign it.

If you have a friend in New York, you can help by sharing this column with them and urging them to contact their governor to urge her to sign the Digital Fair Repair Act into law. Making this big change in New York could mean big changes here in Massachusetts soon.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.
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