One of the best features of capitalism is the fact that it promotes the culture of work across all human societies by actively and steadily rewarding innovations. This enforces efficiency while increasing competition, all of which is great for economic growth. Economic freedom helps political freedom and so capitalism if more often than not, is intricately woven into the fabric of most countries across the globe.
We have much to thank capitalism for but this system also has some deeply flawed components that I find exploitative at best and downright nonsensical at worst. Some of the issues hinging on this system are incredibly infuriating when you really think them through and instances of these include the concept of private prisons, fast fashion and planned obsolescence.
Fast fashion, we all know exists to make us spend more on unnecessary fashion items, but when you consider that private prisons exist to make a profit on the basis of extremely cheap labour, then you might understand better why citizens in the regions where they operate might be locked up arbitrarily and for very flimsy reasons.
One of the most recent issues surrounding capitalism is centered on the question: who should have the right to repair purchased products when in need of repair? For more context on this, the right to repair refers to government legislation and a movement geared towards allowing consumers the right to repair or modify the consumer electronic devices they purchase as opposed to mandating the consumers to use only the repair services of the manufacturers of those goods or products.
Put differently, the concept of the ‘right to repair’ is born out of the popular agitation for consumers to be legally able to repair the goods they purchased at a place of their own choosing, be it with the manufacturers of the items or somewhere else. The fact that we are even discussing this is incredulous because common sense ought to dictate that anyone who buys a device or appliance should have the total right to do with it as they please. Perhaps, the fact that this should be obvious is the reason why this issue does not enjoy as much coverage as is needed.
You might not know this but a good number of manufacturing companies seem to think that they should reserve the right to repair the goods they make, even after selling off such properties to their customers. One of their main arguments here is that their devices contain proprietary technology and algorithms created by them. Accessing these technologies to repair or modify the device without their blessings, they say constitutes a breach of their copyright. Oddly enough, none of these companies would budge if a customer destroyed their products because, well you already bought it. An additional reason they’d prefer not to talk about though, is the fact that the repair industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and they aim to monopolize it.
This stumbling block to a customer’s right to repair the products purchased with his/her resources has been around for some time. However, it took on new meaning with the experience of farmers in Europe and America’s midwest. Farmers in these regions buy very expensive farming equipment to boost profits and cut costs but when a piece of machinery, such as a tractor, develops faults; these farmers well experienced with mechanical equipment are barred from repairing their equipment. The companies that manufactured these products maintain that the faulty equipment can only be fixed by their representatives and this process would take so long, that some farmers would lose out on the planting or harvesting seasons.
In time, this trend slowly moved beyond agricultural companies like John Deere to tech companies like Apple who would not provide battery replacement until a class action lawsuit. According to Apple’s top sustainability officer in 2017, the iPhone was “too complicated” for people to try to repair it without using Apple’s authorized dealers (which is of course very inconvenient). The company even began using special screws for their product so people wouldn’t be able to loosen them.
Personally, I think it’s the ultimate piss for capitalism to set out by deliberately making their products to last a short period of time, manipulating us into buying them by bombarding our smartphones with unsolicited ads and when we buy them, by deciding how and when we can stop using their products. Essentially, by maintaining that even though the product has been purchased and ownership rights transferred to the customer, it’s still the company’s and if as a customer you don’t like this, you can smash up the device and see if they’d care because they wouldn’t. I mean, how does that even make sense?
This feeling is shared by millions around the world which has created the Right to Repair Movement. The lobby movement might have started in the automobile and agricultural sectors but it has been fighting hard for governments to pass the right to repair legislation in their various nations. Thanks to their efforts, about 20 states in the United States are said to have the right to repair laws currently in progress while last year, the European Union passed a right to repair law of sorts. The law mandates that from 2021, manufacturers will make their appliances with longer lifespans while also mandatorily providing spare parts for their appliances for at least 10 years post-manufacture.
Now these new rules which would apply to lighting, washing machines, dishwashers and fridges might be a step in the right direction but it is hardly enough. The reason for this is simple: even with this new legislation, only professionals can repair and consumers still can’t. It’s easy to dismiss this issue and say it doesn’t really affect you as a consumer but it already affects the phone that you use. Apple might have lost its big case against repairs, but you know they won’t stop trying. Plus shit flows downhill. How long until a fashion brand decides that you shouldn’t thrift their clothes? What if cereal companies decide that you cannot resell their products in bulk without their plastic packaging? Seems too much? Well that’s exactly the problem.
The eco-community preaches the practice of repair because it is right and reasonable that a person attempts to fix a faulty device before throwing it away. However, I have not heard a lot of conversation around the right to repair. We often talk about the responsibility of consumers to be environmentally conscious; to reuse and repair but here, we see many of the world’s biggest brands making enormous efforts (overt and otherwise) to ensure that consumers don’t try to fix their items. They have gone as far as trying to make it illegal to fix electronic devices. If we ever hope to reduce electronic waste, this is an issue that we cannot keep quiet about. We must all fight for the right to repair if we hope to reduce waste because people are not likely to want to fix anything if it is difficult or downright illegal to do so.
While this issue is global and affects everyone, the main battle grounds have been in the United States and Europe. In places like Nigeria where I live, we do not have this problem, at least not as much. As I have written here, we don’t throw much away and will fix anything until it becomes unfixable. In response, what the tech companies here have done is to make faulty devices as expensive to fix as to get a new device. Such that if your phone screen cracks, it costs so much to fix it that you probably would decide to save up just to get a new one. It is the fact that these companies have found a way to gradually reduce our deeply ingrained culture of repair that woke me up to the seriousness of this issue.
As customers, understand that this fight against our right to repair the goods we purchased and own is only going to get worse from here. It is better we show up for this fight (with our words, actions and anything else in between) because, at the core of this issue is the crucial question: do we control what we buy or does the manufacturing company we buy from still own our products; permitting us to use them for only a little while?
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Cover image by Sung Jin Cho.