The Fight to Protect a Consumer’s Right to Repair

AUSTIN PRICE—The world is an ever-evolving place with new technologies coming to market every day. However, the question that accompanies these constant advancements is what to do with products, both old and new, that become damaged in ways that are repairable. More specifically, who can make repairs and what role the manufacturer has in providing consumers with the necessary resources, whether that be actual parts or schematics, to fix their devices. This conundrum, first addressed in 1956, over each party’s rights and responsibilities has more recently sparked intense lobbying as well as a strong consumer right to repair movement. The primary request of those participating in the campaign is that manufacturers make parts and information available to all so that consumers can choose who repairs their property. The manufacturer most commonly vilified is Apple, mainly in connection with the iPhone, but other manufacturers involved in the conversation include John Deere, Tesla, and Microsoft.

Beyond the parties active in the debate and consumers’ end goal, it is also important to identify the motivation for the movement. Why do consumers even want the right to repair? In short, the biggest element is cost, but in more ways than one might think. The first and most obvious is the desire to eliminate the ability for producers to monopolize the repair market and in function set their own prices. If there is no alternative avenue to manufacturer repairs, a consumer’s only option is to pay the offered price or buy a replacement. An extension of that issue is an item’s value on the resale market without repair, or rather lack of value. A product that cannot function as designed has a drastically diminished worth to secondhand users.

But there are also less obvious and less immediate cost concerns. One issue unique to agriculture and the manufacturer John Deere is the time constraints on those who use farming equipment. In most cases, farming is done in rural parts of the country where land is more available. And while more accessible land is very helpful, these areas often lack the resources of big cities, meaning an individual cannot simply drive their farming equipment to the local dealership. Even in the unlikely scenario where he or she could, the process of cultivating and collecting crops has an urgency component. Crops need to be harvested and planted at very specific times otherwise the crop yield decreases along with the farmer’s profit. The requirement that a tractor or other piece of equipment be taken into a certified John Deere facility for any fix, instead of allowing for third parties to make onsite repairs, places a heavy burden on farmers. They often cannot afford a lackluster harvest and it is unlikely that a huge supply of million-dollar farm equipment is sitting around for emergency situations. The last concern is that of damage to the environment. While it may not affect us right now, resources for electronics are finite and we need to reuse any component that has a lifespan greater than one purchase cycle. By making it impossible for consumers to repair things at a reasonable price point, fewer components get recycled because consumers simply choose to buy another item.

The issues discussed above have started to bring about change with some manufacturers. Despite Apple’s popular label as the biggest offender, the company has recently announced that it will start selling consumer repair kits for iPhones on their website along with repair kits for MacBooks. Microsoft has not gone quite as far but has stated it will investigate the benefits of a program like Apple’s. Along with these voluntary choices there has also been legislation proposed in many states. At least fifteen states, including Florida, have some form of right to repair laws enacted and another nineteen states have introduced bills for approval. However, progress has not stopped at the state level as the executive branch has signaled its support of consumers. In July of 2021, President Biden signed an executive order directing the Federal Trade Commission to draft regulations limiting a manufacturer’s ability to restrict independent repairs of products. He has also gone on record saying that the current system is majorly flawed in terms of the freedom to choose how things get fixed.

These changes may be early signs of how the right to repair is shifting in favor of consumers, but it is still too early to tell. Apple, while making public promises, has only just recently released repair kits they announced months ago, and Microsoft has done little more than explore the topic. And even if new legislation closes gaps for manufacturers trying to limit consumers’ rights, those companies still ultimately set prices for repair parts. Manufacturers could “comply” with public demands by offering parts at extremely high prices, but it would likely produce a situation very similar to the current one. As these laws continue to change, additional government oversight remains necessary to ensure that improvements for consumers have the intended effect.