Creating a Repair Society

Policies, networks and people

The Current State of Repair from a Systems-Perspective – Insights for the Present and Future of Repair

By Sahra Svensson-Höglund & Jessika Luth Richter

In both the EU and the U.S., policymakers are attempting to increase the amount of repairs made, through for example the introduction of repair requirements under the EU Ecodesign Directive, as well as proposed U.S. Right to Repair-bills. In our latest CREACE publication we mapped the current policy landscape for repair, focusing on the key repair stakeholders and asking: what is hindering these stakeholders’ ability and willingness to participate in repair, and what are the solutions in sight to these impediments? 

Figure 1. Key stakeholders for repair

In terms of current barriers, our review revealed a wide range of fundamental obstacles to both supply and demand of repair, including Intellectual Property, Consumer, Contract, Tax and Chemical laws, along with issues of design, consumer perceptions and markets. Independent repairers and DIYs were impacted the most, particularly by barriers erected by manufacturers to prevent consumers from turning to anyone other than the manufacturer and their authorized network, citing concerns over issues with third-party quality, safety and security issues and, ultimately, brand-risk. 

Proposed and currently implemented solutions are as diverse as the barriers, and the majority seeks to alleviate barriers for independent repairers and consumers by, for example, introducing repair exceptions to intellectual property rights and mandate manufacturers to make spare parts and information available outside of their authorized network. 

By the time we had finalized our comprehensive overview of the repair landscape, we had more questions than when we started our work – as should be the case with research! Nevertheless, the overview provided us with several insights, both regarding the current state and the future of repair. Below, we share our four key insights from the paper. 

1) The goal with the current repair upscale efforts can differ. In the EU, the main motivator is waste prevention and the realization of a Circular Economy, while in the U.S. the motivator is the liberalization of the aftermarket and consumer ownership rights. Although these goals might not seem so different, they produce different outcomes. An upscale of repair activities motivated by enforcement of consumer ownership rights is achieved once all consumers are given the opportunity to engage in repair activities. In contrast, an upscale motivated by environmental protection and the realization of a CE requires more extensive interventions to create a wider demand, supply, and infrastructure for repair to realize as many repair opportunities as possible. Opening up competition on the aftermarket  is believed to provide consumers with enhanced repair options. However, increased price-based competition could make repairers “cut corners” in terms of quality and safety. Such  issues with repair services would not only lead to wasted resources, but also a potential confidence crisis among consumers. 

For reasons of social, economic and environmental sustainability, we suggest that the ultimate goal should be to realize a “Repair Society” where repair is normalized, as part of a larger, realized Circular Economy, where an optimized level of repairs is taking place (i.e., where all repairs that are desirable from an economic and environmental perspective are conducted). 

2) The process for upscaling repair activities is not known. This is connected to the first insight on the discrepancies in the goal behind repair efforts, meaning that the plethora of solutions we identified are not coordinated under a common umbrella, or agreed upon goal or pathway. In response to this gap, we developed a first systematic approach to a market transformation, which we refer to as “The Repair Society Framework”. 

Figure 2. Repair Society Framework

Based on the identified barrier and solutions, the Framework shows how the upscale process consist of three pillars: 

  • Infrastructure and Systems, e.g., access to spares, information and tools, and legalities.
  • Business & Industry, e.g., cost of spares and labour, and risks due to legal obligations and uncertainties.
  • Market and Culture, e.g., consumer preferences and knowledge and information on repair options

The gradual approach to the ascent towards a Repair Society is illustrated in Figure 2 by the scales (low-high) and the coiling arrow, sweeping from pillar to pillar.  

3) Repair market governance is currently mostly centralised, meaning that manufacturers are the main decision-makers regarding what is repairable, how and where repair is offered, and at what price. This can be seen in how the barriers to repair are mostly hindering non-OEM repairs. The new policy proposals (the solutions) challenge this governance and seek to push the state toward more distributive governance, where all stakeholders are able to participate in repair and the consumer chooses who to bring their broken device to. An example of such a repair market governance can be seen for automobiles, where car owners can have their car serviced and repaired at the facility of their choice. Repair market governance can be depicted as a span between these two extremes. 

Figure 3. Span between repair market governance extremes

The U.S. approach through the Right to Repair-bills includes alleviation of barriers not only to independent repairer, but also DIY, making them aspirationally more distributive. The EU, on the other hand, have excluded DIYs from the Ecodesign requirements, making them slightly more centralized. 

These two governance structures create vastly different repair market conditions and, overall, it is uncertain whether the EU and U.S. policymakers have fully considered the implications of the chosen governance structure. 

4) There are different pathways to a repair society. The Repair Society Framework and Governance Structure spans go together into the Repair Society Governance Matrix, showing how the upscale of repair activities can take two different routes to a repair society, depending on governance. 

Figure 4. Repair Society governance framework

Under centralized governance, OEMs would be responsible for increasing repair. This requires an ascent following the blue arrow (see Figure 3) presumably implying a need for legislation to push some OEMs to effectively assume this responsibility. On the other hand, under distributive governance, the ascent first requires a horizontal movement on the span, given that the current governance is primarily centralized, before the vertical ascent can begin (see two red arrows in Figure 3). This implies, for example, reconsiderations of how intellectual property laws are interpreted and quality assurance systems. After that, the ascent up to a repair society implies enabling and promoting all commercial, as well as non-commercial, repair actors. 

Moving forward, we see the need for a more informed, strategic and harmonized approach to the upscale of repair. Currently, certain U.S. and EU states, such as California and France, are leading the charge in the development of innovative ways to upscale repair activities, while other states remain inactive on the issue. The creation of repair laws that are uniform, aligned, and appropriately scoped (such as in the nature and extent of the obligations for OEMS to supply spares, tools and information, outside of their authorized network), would reduce uncertainties and strengthen market predictability – which is in everyone’s interests.

January 31, 2021

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