Apple has finally seen the light on repairs. After years of consumer and legal pressure, the smartphone maker last week launched a self-service repair programme that will allow customers to buy replacement parts. While few people have the skills to fix their own iPhones, this could drive up demand for independent technicians.
This is long overdue from a company that has fiercely guarded its control over the repair process and used means fair and foul to induce smartphone owners to upgrade regularly. Last year, Apple agreed to pay $500m to settle claims that it deliberately slowed down some iPhones as they got older.
The company has long contended that its experts are best positioned to repair its devices, but the prices it charges are extremely high. Replacing the back glass on an out-of-warranty iPhone 13 Pro Max can cost $599, half the price of a new model.
Apple has plenty of company. Hard-to-repair machines are everywhere, from farm tractors to washing machines to smartphones. This planned obsolescence is anti-competitive, allowing companies to drive up revenue at the expense of their customers. It is also unconscionably wasteful.
Users discarded 53.6m metric tonnes of electric and electronic products in 2019, up 21 per cent in five years, and the figure is projected to rise by another 50 per cent by the end of this decade. Less than 20 per cent of this e-waste was recycled.
Consumer groups and environmentalists have been trying for years to address the waste of money and materials through “right-to-repair” laws. They have had some success with US cars and UK and EU white goods.
Manufacturers have fought them every step of the way. At least 27 US state legislatures considered right-to-repair bills this year, but most failed to pass in the face of opposition from manufacturers, particularly Big Tech. Apple and Microsoft lobbied hard against some of the proposals, as did Amazon and Google.
Both the UK and EU’s right to repair laws have drawn sharp criticism from consumer groups as inadequate. First they apply only to certain appliances and televisions, while currently excluding laptops, smartphones and tablets. Second there is nothing to prevent manufacturers from making repairs prohibitively expensive by charging high prices for parts or bundling parts together so that large sections have to be replaced together.
But the pressure is mounting. US President Joe Biden has ordered the Federal Trade Commission to look at anti-competitive restrictions on repair markets. The EU is also looking to strengthen its rules as part of the bloc’s plan for a circular economy.
Suddenly Big Tech has started to change its position on repairs. Microsoft promised in October to find ways to reduce its environmental impact by making its products easier to repair. Both it and Apple were facing specific shareholder proposals on the issue.
These small concessions must not be allowed to derail government efforts to set higher standards. The UK and EU should enact stronger right-to-repair laws and the US needs requirements of its own.
None of this will have the desired impact unless consumers change their buying habits. But governments can nudge them along. France now requires manufacturers to include a “repairability rating” on product listings. Rules on corporate carbon-footprint disclosures should force companies to reveal how long products last and whether they are recycled in the end. It is long past time to throw away the throwaway economy.