For the last few years, manufacturers in a variety of industries have been confronted by consumer groups over the inability to repair their devices. From farming equipment to consumer tech, manufacturers currently control the repair process and are legally able to void warranties if consumers use third parties to repair their products.
This could all be about to change, however. The right to repair movement is gaining momentum, and eCommerce brands could soon be swept up in it.
What Is the Right to Repair Movement?
The right to repair movement seeks to put consumers back in control of their property when it comes to repairs.
“Consumer Reports (CR) and iFixit, among others in the so-called right to repair movement, have promoted standards that would force manufacturers to make it legal and practical for consumers, or independent repair shops, to get under the hood of their devices,” explains Fortune’s Lucas Laursen.
The movement has been around since 2012, when Massachusetts signed the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act into law. This forced auto manufacturers to make all parts and information related to repairs available to everyone.
This has led to a spate in right to repair bills in other states, writes Gizmodo’s Catie Keck. “As of March , around 20 states had considered right-to-repair bills to protect consumers’ ability to fix their property—be it through parts, software, or a network of local third-party businesses that keeps repairs accessible and affordable.” If successful, consumers will be able to decide for themselves who they get to fix their goods, whether it’s the manufacturer, an independent shop or themselves.
It has since become a national issue, writes WIRED’s Nathan Proctor. In March, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren proposed a national right to repair law and lent her support to farmers struggling to repair equipment.
But the movement is facing heavy opposition from leading tech companies and other manufacturers.
Motherboard’s Jason Koebler reports that Apple secured a number of private meetings with California legislators in which the company warned that right to repair would put the health and security of customers at risk. “The lobbyists brought an iPhone to the meetings and showed lawmakers and their legislative aides the internal components of the phone. The lobbyists said that if improperly disassembled, consumers who are trying to fix their own iPhone could hurt themselves by puncturing the lithium-ion battery.”
A new nonprofit advocacy group called Securepairs.org wants to push back against that kind of messaging, arguing instead that devices can be both easy to fix and secure.
Apple’s position was ultimately effective, however. On April 30, the Californian bill was pulled by its sponsors due to a lack of support.
The Movement Has Gone Global
It’s not just in the US where right to repair is gaining traction. Across much of the world, and in particular the EU and Canada, right to repair laws are being debated and enshrined.
In February, Canadian legislator Michael Coteau introduced a right to repair bill that would have forced manufacturers to provide the tools and information to repair devices to consumers in Ontario.
This would have been the first bill in North America to empower consumers to take repairs into their own hands, reports Motherboard’s Jordan Pearson. But the bill failed to pass its second reading in Ontario parliament after heavy lobbying from the tech industry.
All is not lost in Canada’s fight for right to repair, Pearson continues. “Though the right to repair bill is dead in Ontario, Coteau believes that it’s only a matter of time before politicians and the public realize these consumer protections are much-needed.”
Across the pond, change is already underway. In January, right to repair laws went into effect in the European Union. “Everyday products including lighting, displays, washing machines, dishwashers and fridges will need to be made to be more easily repairable and longer-lasting from April 2021,” reports The Ecologist’s Catherine Early.
Ugo Vallauri, Cofounder of the Restart Project, has called the EU’s move “a historic moment.”
“Not only does this provide a precedent for additional product categories to be included in future, but it’s likely other regions will now be inspired to enact similar legislation.”
3 Challenges eCommerce Brands Face
As support for the right to repair grows, eCommerce brands — all companies, not just tech firms — need to be aware of how the movement could impact their business.
Here are three aspects of business that could be impacted:
1. Manufacturing Practices
One of the biggest changes could be in the way that products are manufactured, writes Global Electronic Services’ Roger Shelzer. “Specifically, products are being produced with a focus on safety, sustainability, and security.”
Shelzer warns that giving consumers access to the inner workings of products could have serious consequences with regard to patents and proprietary technology. Manufacturing practices will need to change to reflect this.
2. Product Design
The design of products themselves could also be compromised, says Mike Booker, Senior Designer at product design consultancy Design Reality. In order to make products repairable by anyone, designs could become bulkier and far less streamlined than current standards. The design process could also be lengthened significantly so that products meet standards.
3. Business Models
Future revenue could also be at risk, according to iFixit’s Kyle Wiens [subscription required]. Today, many products aren’t standalone devices. Take Amazon’s Echo, for instance. Amazon may lose money on the product itself, but it generates vast sums as a result of the data the product collects. The same is true for fitness trackers.
Giving consumers the ability to repair products threatens to eliminate these forms of additional revenue. “If owners could easily tinker with such devices, that could sever the profitable links between product, service and data, which may make manufacturers’ guard them even more jealously.” The prices of these products would also likely increase, Wiens says.
There’s big money in repairs, too, Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Claire Bushey writes. “Manufacturers have a strong financial incentive to limit customers’ repair options. Making an iPhone hard to fix drives sales of new ones. For Illinois heavy-equipment makers, controlling repairs drives lucrative service work to dealers and boosts sales of parts, a growing portion of manufacturers’ revenues.”
This revenue could be wiped out as a result of right to repair laws. eCommerce brands that generate revenue as a result of repair services may have to look elsewhere to fill a hole in their balance sheets.
Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining, However
The right to repair movement isn’t all doom and gloom from an eCommerce perspective. There are several opportunities hidden among the challenges outlined above.
For one, eCommerce brands that embrace the right to repair movement in anticipation of changes in the law could dramatically increase brand equity, particularly in the context of consumer anti-waste initiatives.
The Law Scribbler’s Jason Tashea points out that the current state of consumer tech has a devastating effect on the environment. “From the excavation of hard-to-attain rare earth metals to the effluent created in the development of new devices to the landfill-stuffing disposal of mercury-leaking consumer electronics, technology is a dirty business.”
As a result, an eCommerce brand that proactively embraces right to repair could bolster its green credentials.
There’s also potential to increase revenue as a result of right to repair. Syncron CMO Gary Brooks suggests that “a subscription-based service model focused on maximizing product uptime” could help companies bolster revenues by anticipating repair needs. Smart sensors within products that predict future repairs would also improve the customer experience, ensuring that customers faced little or no downtime.
Right to repair could change the consumer product industry, but it’s nothing that forward-thinking eCommerce brands can’t get ahead or use to their advantage.