Each year, humanity uses more resources than the earth can possibly regenerate, leading to the depressing holiday known as Earth Overshoot Day—the day of the year when we’ve used more resources than the earth has made. In 2023, overshoot day was August 2, while in the 1970s the day used to come in December.
As our cycles of consumption continue to accelerate, we are bringing ourselves closer to an uninhabitable planet. There will be a variety of strategies needed to break with our habits of consumption, and repair is a strong tool for doing just that. So why are companies, which are quick to jump on the pro-environmental and “circular economy” bandwagon, also restricting repair? Put simply, these buzzwords and platitudes alone will need action backing them up.
Repair Adds Credibility to Circular Economy
Repair breeds intimate relationships with objects we rely on, promotes self-reliance, and builds community as people share their skills. Let’s take the example of bicycles, where the benefits and ease of repair are well-known. But e-bike manufacturers are bucking this trend as they attempt to maximize their control over e-bike repairs under the guise of sustainability. While regular bikes are standardized and easy to repair, e-bike makers are seeking exemptions from right-to-repair laws altogether, citing safety concerns (such as exploding batteries) and are instead advocating for authorized battery repairs and recycling.
How to Repair Electric Bikes
What to inspect and do when looking to resolve…
This lock-down of e-bike batteries is a fairly minor example compared to the flagrant software controls used on other products. Cory Doctorow, who coined the term “enshittification” for the worsening quality of services and products in the face of corporations with dominant market power, reminds us that software can make our repair even more difficult. Tesla is a prime example, having used software to lie about their battery ranges, made cars less safe when using third-party parts, and allegedly repossess cars from delinquent buyers. Doctorow reminds us that the same part pairing technology that keeps out third-party parts from connecting with tractors and cars are also in life-saving ventilators:
By usurping your right to decide who fixes your phone, Apple gets to decide whether you can fix it, or whether you must replace it. Problems solved – and not just for Apple, but for car makers, tractor makers, ventilator makers and more.Cory Doctorow
It’s easy to box right to repair into a fight over spare parts for iPhones. But at its core, it’s an issue of corporate power and control. When we don’t get a McFlurry that’s one thing, but when ventilator prices rise because of repair restrictions the stakes are very different. Repair can resist this “enshittification” by demanding agency, autonomy, and transparency over machines that are currently under the control of corporations.
Balancing Out Corporate Power
Earth Overshoot Day reminds us that we need to change a lot to begin healing our ecological systems. But we are oftentimes fed a narrative that if we leave it to the tech companies they will solve it for us.
Take the fashion company Rent the Runway as a prime example. The online clothing rental company promises its consumers they are helping the environment by curbing their addiction to fast fashion—simply transition your clothing-buying habit to a subscription clothing model. In reality, a study of the company’s environmental impact found “you’re better off buying clothes and throwing them away.” It turns out that not buying anything at all is usually the best route to make an impact.
The extreme version of this argument that circular business practices have even been supported by the World Economic Forum. It published a piece in 2016 titled “Welcome To 2030: I Own Nothing, Have No Privacy and Life Has Never Been Better” that shows the extremes of what a world devoid of ownership and agency over our machines would look like:
Once in a while, I will choose to cook for myself. It is easy—the necessary kitchen equipment is delivered at my door within minutes. Since transport became free, we stopped having all those things stuffed into our home. Why keep a pasta-maker and a crepe cooker crammed into our cupboards? We can just order them when we need them.
This also made the breakthrough of the circular economy easier. When products are turned into services, no one has an interest in things with a short life span. Everything is designed for durability, repairability and recyclability.World Economic Forum
While the picture the WEF paints is rosy, there is an underlying assumption that if we give up ownership, then environmentalism will follow. But repairability and circularity are not intrinsically good. We could see a world that mirrors the model of a tool library where communities pool their resources, thoughtfully engage with repair and material consumption, and offer aid to one another. Or we could slip into a world where we only use corporate-sponsored e-scooters (that people inevitably dump into rivers) that require authorized repair and rent clothing boxes because we assume they are better for the environment. If we are going to reverse our habits that have led to the quicker and quicker approach of overshoot each year, we will need to take the first approach of self-reliant repair that empowers us collectively.
- Apple looks for loophole on removable batteries: Apple is reportedly countering new EU regulations that require portable batteries to be easily replaceable by arguing that making iPhones with removable batteries would compromise their water-resistant design, as stated by Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering, John Ternus, who emphasized that maintaining water resistance involves using specialized adhesives and sealants that could complicate the opening process for battery replacement; this argument aligns with a clause in the EU rules excluding appliances regularly exposed to water.
- German company creates biodegradable circuit board: Biodegradable printed circuit boards (PCBs), produced using natural fibers and polymers, dissolve in water in just a few hours, and yield valuable metals. This product, developed by a German semiconductor producer, would aim to help tech companies achieve their climate goals by reducing e-waste and carbon footprint associated with traditional PCBs, potentially leading to a 60% reduction in carbon footprint compared to classic PCBs.
- Repairing or replacing appliances: The trade-offs between prolonging an appliance’s life for cost savings and environmental benefits, versus opting for newer, potentially more energy-efficient models can be difficult to discern. The increasing complexity of modern appliances and their shorter expected lifespans are factors complicating this decision-making process, but Consumer Reports is offering interactive tools to guide consumers based on purchase price, age, and repair costs.
- Canada is looking to amend its copyright laws: Legal changes in Canada could soon allow the bypassing of digital locks or “technological prevention measures” (TPMs) on electronic devices for the purpose of maintaining or repairing products. Canadian policymakers are looking to address the issue of manufacturers’ using TPMs to restrict third-party access and to control over aftermarket repair services.