Waste Watch: Europeans Get Right to Repair for Some Consumer Electrical Goods, While John Deere Reneges on Promise to U.S. Farmers to Make Diagnostic Software Freely Available

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

New right to repair rules for some consumer electrical goods, including hairdryers, refrigerators, television displays, and washing machines, came into effect in the 27-nation EU on Monday, mandating that products be repairable for ten years.

Tech Republic reported that the the European Parliament voted to approve the policy in November 2020.

Each year, Europeans produce about 35 kilos of electrical waste per person, about half of which comes from household appliances, of which only 40% is recycled, according to Tech Explore. The EU new right to repair rules aim to reduce that waste.

As per Tech Explore:

“This is a really big step in the right direction” said Daniel Affelt of the environmental group BUND-Berlin, which runs several “repair cafes” where people can bring in their broken appliances and get help fixing them up again.

Modern appliances are often glued or riveted together, he said. “If you need specialist tools or have to break open the device, then you can’t repair it.”

Lack of spare parts is another problem, campaigners say. Sometimes a single broken tooth on a tiny plastic sprocket can throw a proverbial wrench in the works.

“People want to repair their appliances,” Affelt said. “When you tell them that there are no spare parts for a device that’s only a couple of years old then they are obviously really frustrated by that.”

Going forward, manufacturers serving the  EU market will need to supply spare parts for a minimum of ten years. The rules allow manufacturers to supply some parts to professional repair companies only – rather than directly to consumers – to ensure they are installed correctly. But providing explicitly for third party repair services to get access to parts reduces the stranglehold manufactures currently have on the pricing and availability of repair.

And, according to Tech Explore:

New devices will also have to come with repair manuals and be made in such a way that they can be dismantled using conventional tools when they really can’t be fixed anymore, to improve recycling.

Some manufacturers – most notoriously, Apple in the consumer electronics area – use special screws that require specialized equipment to repair. I haven’t delved into how the EU expects to enforce this provision, but it is a sign of progress to see it enacted into law.

Europe is slowly expanding its waste management policy, so as to flesh out  a circular economy models, with manufacturers required to consider a product’s entire life cycle, and an emphasis on sustainability. This model discards the prior linear model, which culminated in a product’s disposal.

Over to Tech Explore:

German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze said that in a next step, manufacturers should have to state how long a product is expected to work for and repair it if it breaks down earlier. This would encourage companies to build more durable products, she said.

“In the repair cafes we see a lot of devices that broke shortly after the warranty expired,” said Affelt—a phenomenon that has prompted some environmentalists to accuse manufacturers of designing their devices with planned obsolescence.

Knowing an appliance will really last for a decade might prompt consumers to choose products that are more durable or can be easily fixed, he said.

“For the vast majority of devices, repair is the right choice,” said Affelt, adding that the exception might be old, inefficient refrigerators that can contain powerful greenhouse gases which fuel climate change.

Next on the EU Agenda

Next on the EU agenda: implementing a right to repair for consumer electronics, including computers, laptops, and smartphones, major sources of eWaste.

Some EU states have gone farther than the wider bloc as in implementing right to repair provisions. France, for example, from this year forward  will require manufacturers to include repairability scores in information provided to consumers; these would assess how easy it is to repair a product up front, for consumers to considerwhen making purchasing decisions, according to Tech Republic:

Apple introduced these scores to its online stores in France on Monday. Manufacturers have until the end of 2021 to introduce these grades to their products before they risk facing legal sanctions.

And Tech Explore reports that Sweden ‘’nudges’ consumers to chose repair over replacement by levying lower value added taxes on repair services and parts than on new products.

That’s the same Apple, by the way,  that’s long been the right to repair movement’s Antichrist, resisting implementing any right to repair, relying on far-fetched arguments, including the whopper that allowing repairability would endanger consumers. In its maneuvers, Apple ]fights against the interests of its customers and the environment, which would benefit from relatively lower-cost repair over replacement.

In response to years of consumer pressure, Apple has now made some limited right to repair concessions, announcing last year that it would make spare parts available to third party services that repair Mac Computers, according to Tech Explore.

What Does EU Policy Bide for the U.S.?

So, now that the EU is committed to  trodding the right to repair path – with the Gallic extension – how about consumers on the western side of the pond, e.g, the good ‘ole USA? Birthplace of planned obsolescence. Which lags badly behind many other countries, especially the EU but also parts of Asia and Latin America in its waste management policies.

When will USians see similar right to repair provisions enacted? (see Will 2021 Be the Year for the Right to Repair? and Right to Repair: Saves Consumers Money, Promotes Local Jobs Rather than Global Supply Chains).

Alas, not imminently. Although many states have teed up right to repair legislation, all U.S. states – including California, Massachusetts, and New York –   have yet to enact any state legislation, lag the EU, with the exception of the successful November 2020 Massachusetts ballot initiative to provide third parties access to automatic telematics information that dealers and automakers had kept to themselves. This November 2020 initiative built upon an earlier 2013 right to repair the Commonwealth of Massachusetts acted for automobiles (see Right to Repair Redux: Massachusetts Ballot Questions).

In fact, the most visible recent right to repair move was for a market leader to renege on a prior commitment. In 2018, John Deere and other agricultural equipment manufacturers loudly promised to make right to repair information and diagnostic software available for its tractors and other sophisticated farm equipment, so as to forestall right to repair legislation then pending in several states.

According to a February 19, 2021 press release issued by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG):

For years, farmers have been calling for access to the tools needed to repair modern tractors, combines and other farm equipment. Their efforts resulted in dozens of Right to Repair bills — legislation that would require manufacturers to give access to their repair materials to customers and independent repair shops.

Responding to that pressure in 2018, trade associations representing the dealers and manufacturers of agricultural equipment — the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) and the Equipment Dealers Association (EDA) — debuted a new industry promise (PDF) to create and sell (or lease) new tools to allow farmers to repair their own equipment. These trade associations pledged that the tools would be available for equipment sold on or after January 2021.

But 7 weeks into 2021, these tools are not for sale on JohnDeere.com, and we’d heard reports from farmers across the country their local dealers didn’t have those promised tools available. To investigate, U.S. PIRG Right to Repair Advocate Kevin O’Reilly called 12 John Deere dealerships in 6 different states. Of those, 11 told Kevin that they don’t sell diagnostic software and one gave him the email address of someone to ask for the tools — though after two days, Kevin had not heard back.

Vice ran an excellent article on John Deere’s failure to follow through on the way 2018 pledge. This article pulled no punches, as the headline suggests: John Deere Promised Farmers It Would Make Tractors Easy to Repair. It Lied. It’s well-researched and thorough and I encourage interested readers to read it in full.  As the article discusses, Vice independently contacted John Deere to attempt to get access to the software and repair information U.S. PIRG had also sought- also to no avail.

U.S. PIRG also produced a report on how dependent modern farm equipment is on software, which makes clear how much of a problem John Deere’s policy poses for farmers  and – the costs it imposes:

The lack of software repair tools is a huge barrier for farmers, according to a new U.S. PIRG Education Fund report Deere in the Headlights. The report provides background information about why John Deere and its competitors’ tractors are so hard to fix. Modern farm equipment, like most 21st century technology, runs on software. Our research found as many as 125 software-connected sensors in a single combine harvester. If any of those sensors go down, software diagnostic tools are needed to repair the combine and put it back into use.

But when manufacturers restrict access to the software tools needed to repair broken tractors, farmers need to rely on dealerships and a simple task can turn into a month-long wait.

For example, when a tractor belonging to Walter Schweitzer, a third-generation farmer and President of the Montana Farmers Union, broke down, he was forced to take it to the dealer instead of buying $500 in parts and fixing it on his own. A $5,000 repair bill later, he was able to get back to work—but a month behind on the typically tight farming schedule of plowing, planting and harvesting.

“Farmers, we’re an independent bunch. When we see a problem, we’re used to fixing it,” Schweitzer said. “But without the software we need to repair our equipment, we’re serfs. We deserve the freedom to fix our own stuff.”

John Deere or Jean Cerf?

Interestingly, the right to repair software  John Deere is failing to make accessible to U.S. farmers – contrary to its 2018 promise – is widely available to its European customers. As Vice reports:

It would not be difficult for John Deere and other manufacturers to comply with a right to repair law, or, at the very least, to abide by its own promise. Europe has had some right to repair regulations which require “standardized access to repair and maintenance information (RMI) systems to provide repair and maintenance information for vehicles used in agriculture and forestry” since 2013, and manufacturers comply with those.

EU farmers and now consumers have access to right to repair information, as EU policymakers have enacted laws that require manufacturers to provide the information.  The John Deer example demonstrates that U.S. lawmakers cannot rely on mere company promises and goodwill alone. As per Vice again:

And so the solution in the United States seems like it’s going to have to be the same. Not a promise from manufacturers and dealers, but legislation with the force of law.

As Nathan Proctor, U.S. PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign director, emailed me  in response to come questions, “If you can get these tools in Europe but not in the states, that puts our farmers at a competitive disadvantage — and adds insult to injury.”

And Nathan’s final zinger on John Deere’s business practices: “Are they selling digital repair tools to French farmers, but not a farmer in Nebraska? Perhaps they should rename themselves to ‘Jean Cerf’.”

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