The feeling of unboxing a new phone or laptop but not really knowing what to do with the old one isn't unfamiliar for millions of people. Old personal electronic devices are not only pushed to the backs of old drawers, but sometimes they get binned altogether – none of which is any good for the environment. It also means that lots of valuable materials go to waste within old devices that aren't being appropriately recycled or disassembled.
And it's not just that consumers aren't taking the time to repair and recycle their devices – it's also that big technology companies aren't creating an environment that's friendly to refurbishing old devices. While device repair was once a thriving industry, it hasn't been able to keep up with the pace at which larger companies are manufacturing and marketing new devices; by extension, people are being trained to default to buying a new device rather than repairing a small fault on an old one. Manufacturers also increasingly build devices that work at full capacity for only a couple of years. But they may not be able to do this for much longer, especially following ‘right to repair’ legislation and activism in the US, UK and Europe. This is challenging tech companies to think beyond planned obsolescence and put the power back in buyers' hands by giving them the right to repair their own devices.
It's a sea change from the way that tech buying happens at the moment. In short, it will require manufacturers to make repair information and parts accessible, as well as giving smaller businesses the opportunity to rebuild an ecosystem where people can easily come and have a device refurbished. Startups and small businesses are already hot on tech companies' heels and are exploring how an elevated buying experience and education can support people to choose a refurbished device over a new one.
As these ideas begin to go mainstream, these businesses are having to do a lot of hand-holding, like providing support and warranties on refurbished tech. And it's not just resellers and high-street repair shops that will see a surge in demand: independent technology manufacturers, producers and designers might also have an opportunity to attract new audiences by designing products that operate beyond planned obsolescence and are made to last for the long run.
Meet the panel
Aaron Perzanowski is a law professor at Ohio's Case Western Reserve University and author of The Right to Repair.
Lauren Benton is the US general manager at Back Market, an online marketplace for refurbished devices.
Phil Kemish is the CEO and co-founder of Reboxed, an online platform for buying certified repaired devices.
Shamil Joomun runs Armstrong Audio, a family-owned audio repairs business and coffee shop in London.
Sophie Unwin is the founder of Remade Network, a repair-focused social enterprise in Glasgow, Scotland.
Refurbished technology has always been around, but why do you think there's been such a focus on it recently, both from an innovation and investment perspective?
LB: ‘The post-pandemic recession has us being more budget-conscious. There's also the supply-chain challenge, with the chip [silicon chips, also known as semiconductors or integrated circuits, which are key computer parts] shortage impacting everything from cars through to consumer electronics. These were the “aha” moments for renewed technology to continue to rise, but sourcing that tech can be difficult. So, how do we make discovering renewed technology easy? For me, it's all about building trust. Around 80% of the cars sold in the US are pre-owned and, if we can trust pre-owned cars, the same thing can exist for smartphones.’
AP: ‘Global smartphone production is at over 1 billion units per year, and we're racing to a point where everyone who's going to buy one already [has]. A natural outgrowth of that fact is that we're starting to think about the durability and longevity. The other component that has led to more attention on this issue is the increasingly aggressive steps manufacturers have taken to interfere with that repair and refurbishment. They recognize that once this market saturates, they're going to have to convince people to replace existing devices with new ones.’
PK: ‘If you don't make something cool, sexy and easy, people won't fully transition to it. We innovated through branding, as well as making secondhand as easy as buying new – if not easier. Seventy-four per cent of our customers have never bought refurbished technology before, so we see ourselves as a transition brand. Affordability is also a factor here, as well as the chip shortage.’
SJ: ‘Repair businesses used to be viable because it was cheaper to get something repaired than buy something new. You didn't have the concept of designed obsolescence in the eighties; because electronics were still being assembled by hand, they could also be repaired by hand. Building with robots on fully automated production lines means that your fingertips just can't get in. When it comes to audio equipment, people can get sentimentally attached to the sound, memory and experience. It's the tactile experience that people crave. I wanted to focus on that emotional quotient and flip that business model so that it was cheaper to get something repaired than to replace it.’
What's been the typical customer experience of buying refurbished tech and how's that starting to change? How about the customer experience of repair?
AP: ‘One thing that has made consumers more comfortable is the ability to buy from recognized or trusted resellers, or the original equipment manufacturers themselves. Apple and Samsung's websites have a limited – and overpriced – selection of refurbished devices. You might be more comfortable buying from them because they're likely to be more responsive if something goes wrong. We're also seeing the emergence of online sellers of refurbished goods, and – whether it's rational or not – buying refurbished from an online platform feels like a safer option than the garage sale or flea market.’
SJ: ‘[London-based repair company] iSmash has dressed its repair services up to be Formula 1-esque. It puts all of its repair equipment on show, and allows you to view when the phone is opened up. iSmash has turned engineers into the superstars who repair something that people love. At Armstrong, we put the reception [where] people book repairs inside the workshop, so they can see the units being repaired, the soldering irons and the repair teams. We can involve the customer in that interaction. It's good marketing, because they go away and talk about it. People are paying for the story.’
LB: ‘On online marketplaces that sell everything, buying refurbished technology is hard: you have to read reviews, and look for a seller that has a good history of sales. We support all the expectations that consumers have of convenience: free shipping and accessibility to a support team. We're obsessive about trust and quality because, if you don't have a good experience of buying refurbished over buying new, then your default option will be to go back to buying new.’
SU: ‘Ethical consumption is a strong motivator for people to buy repaired devices, whereas that wasn't the case 10 or 12 years ago. We started off with one shop in Glasgow, and we now have [several repair hubs across the city] that are open one day a week. It's a low-cost way to engage people in our repair services and educational workshops.’
What do you think the long-term impact of right-to-repair legislation will be?
AP: ‘Both in the EU and the UK, the Ecodesign Directive and regulation that has been adopted over the past couple of years are an important blueprint for how governments can influence a design process. [These rules impose] requirements on manufacturers of certain kinds of goods, like home appliances. For example, a washing machine has to be built so that it can be disassembled with everyday tools without permanently damaging the product. We'll see some more movements in the next couple of years: for instance, we could see a requirement that smartphones have user-replaceable batteries. Companies can withhold repair manuals and refuse to sell them to anyone but their own authorized repair facilities, but the law could mandate that these be made available to consumers.’
LB: ‘The elephant in the room is that there's a planetary limit to how much new stuff we can make and sell. We need to offer business models that help shareholders, meet customer needs and work within the limitations of the planet – and right to repair is a key way to build this framework. Within refurbished technology, there are different types of consumers who want different price points – how do you reach them all? We, as consumers, default to ordering something new right away when we need it, but we need to shift to [consider] a renewed option first and foremost. User manuals, repair tools and repair subscriptions can help people achieve this – and all of that also comes back to design. Consumers might pay more for a device if it has been scored on repairability and longevity, for example.’
SU: ‘The high street is dying in its current form and there's a fight for consumers' attention around sustainability messaging and activity. There are questions about companies' overall business models: recycling is fine, but what if you're generating more waste overall? Right to repair is coming into the public consciousness, and it has been a really galvanizing positive movement.’
How are some of the bigger tech companies reacting to this shift?
AP: ‘We've seen efforts from manufacturers to push back on this trend. The most glaring example is the deal between Apple and Amazon, where Apple agreed to sell its full line of products directly through Amazon. In exchange, it requested that Amazon kick all third-party resellers off the platform, which was a huge blow to refurbished tech sellers. It was a real advantage to be listed on Amazon, because it gave resellers a degree of legitimacy. Companies do see the refurbished market as a potential threat and they're exerting control by promoting their own trade-in programs. That's helpful to the manufacturer because it stops the used device going to a refurbisher. We're seeing steps to allow consumers to self-repair: Samsung and Google are now making parts available through [US how-to website] iFixit, and Apple has announced plans to give consumers access to batteries, screens and cameras.’
LB: ‘Brands are recognizing the audience that this opens them up to, which is different from those who are buying new. But there's still a lot to play out in terms of them saying things and delivering on them. How can a consumer buy parts to repair and are they available at a price point that realistically makes sense for this particular device?’
PK: ‘Apple has just dropped its subscription product for new smartphones, which means you can essentially subscribe to your technology rather than owning it. But manufacturers have to facilitate system change. This is a linear system, and we're trying to promote a circular system. We're at a semi-circular system right now: we've got reuse and rental, but we're not at a point where an iPhone will keep going for 25 years with new parts.’
On the flip side, how do you think it'll impact smaller businesses?
SJ: ‘There are enough consumers out there and enough demand for repair and refurbishment for small businesses to look at it as an opportunity. With the cost-of-living crisis, people are going to be less flashy. They no longer need the latest gadget and think that getting something repaired is much cooler – it's almost like a badge of honor and a chance to wear their virtues. You need to understand the motivations: it's cheaper to repair a smartphone than audio equipment, for example, but older devices are more emotional. This trend also opens an upskilling gap for young people.’
AP: ‘Small businesses in the repair and refurbishment community could play a stewardship role. Looking to the past, we used to have thriving markets for independent repair and refurbishment. There was a massive number of people employed in repair industries, covering televisions, radios and home appliances: in 1966, there were [around] 200,000 people employed as home-appliance repairers in the US. Today, there are around 40,000. One thing we can hope for is the return of these businesses that provide a local and hands-on service.’
PK: ‘Predictive and remote diagnostics will allow us to tell a device's battery health and condition of certain elements from a distance. You might, in the future, get a message that your battery or screen needs replacing. There will also be smaller manufacturers taking on market share, like Fairphone [an electronics firm that designs and produces smartphones with the goal of having a lower environmental footprint], or other alternatives that cost £200. These will give consumers an easy and accessible choice to not buy from the big brands.’
The focus on repairability and moving beyond planned obsolescence offers an opportunity for the tech industry to design and market products in some interesting new ways. How will this impact the design of devices moving forwards?
LB: ‘Let's think about the printer I have now: it's a green subscription that uses ink packs that you can send back in once they're empty. That way, they don't end up in landfill and the ink pack subscription keeps me loyal. Design can be the thing that makes us attached to the device without locking us into it. I'd be really interested to see how original equipment manufacturers develop unique designs. It can be as simple as a universal plug or exchangeable components.’
SJ: ‘Equipment built in the seventies and eighties was built to last – [made] out of metal and wood rather than plastic. There's an opportunity to be innovative in repair, and use electronic components that are standardized. In comparison, plastic components, like the size of a cog or a volume slider, can be specific and therefore not universal. That's where it could get prohibitive for us. But could we use a 3D printer to build parts we can't buy any more? If the cost of 3D printing comes down, that could be a way to make repairs more affordable, too.’
AP: ‘There are a handful of smaller designers designing with repairability in mind from the outset. Fairphone builds smartphones that are meant to be repaired: the parts are modular and can be swapped out and upgraded. Some of the legacy companies are also thinking about repairable design: [US tech company] Dell in the past few months released a prototype of a repairable laptop.’
The model that most tech companies rely on – where people buy devices that last for a few years and then have to upgrade – is slowly going to become obsolete. Independent manufacturers are starting to factor this into device design, making it easier and more affordable to repair broken products. A few of the panelists mention Fairphone, a smartphone made to be repairable. Here are four similar products.
• The maker of The Light Phone has taken a deliberately minimalist approach to designing its smartphone. While it still has all the core functionalities of a phone, it eliminates browsers and social media apps. Small and incremental software upgrades are available, but the idea is to keep the phone as simple as possible.
• AIAIAI takes a modular approach to headphone design. Users can choose their own combination of speaker units, headband style, earpads and cables. That also makes upgrading and repairing much easier if one part of the headphone is broken. The team is also working on designing products that can be separated using a single screwdriver, as well as component repair guides.
• Framework's laptop comes in two price tiers: £899 for the laptop itself or the lower price of £819 for a DIY Edition that the user can tinker with themselves. People can choose to incorporate their own preferences, including an operating system, laptop memory and storage. The modular Expansion Card means that users can also connect out to all types of hardware ports.
• While most smartphones tend to have a high-performance life of only two years, Teracube offers a four-year warranty for its 2e phone. Any accidental damage will only cost the user a flat fee of $59 and it has a replaceable battery module. More than 2,400 people contributed to Teracube's recent crowdfunding campaign.
This article was first published in Courier issue 48, August/September 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.