The fight for the right to repair


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My ink-jet printer is sulking, because I’ve tried to sneak a cartridge from a different company into it. Since it had an internal software upgrade, it detects my attempts to use recycled cartridges, and shuts down. It’s morphed into a different product from the one I bought.

Appliances used to be labour-saving devices. Now, we have to coax and cosset them to function. Our posh new tumble drier shuts down with pitiful beeps after every second cycle, unless three different filters are cleaned of fluff. “Looks like it was designed by men who’ve never done laundry,” quipped the bloke who came to fix it. The washing machine can be remote controlled but won’t wash above 40C unless it’s on the “eco” setting, which takes 4 hours.

No device in our house is as sensitive, though, as our fancy induction hob. When it stopped working a few weeks ago the engineer asked me, in an accusatory tone, what kind of saucepans I was using. We’d already had to get rid of our non steel pans, so that the magnetic current could work. But some of our stainless steel pans, he claimed, are “throwing it off”. What solution did he suggest? Buy a new set from — of course — the company that employs him, which makes the hob. I don’t know whether to believe his claim that my ugly old pans are upsetting my sensitive stove. But then I do need to be able to cook.

We never used to anthropomorphise machines that do simple things — print on paper, send water round in a circle or heat food. The fact that all these gadgets are now in a huff leaves me pretty sceptical about capitalism’s claim to provide continuous improvement. If Joseph Schumpeter walked into my kitchen today, he’d surely be railing against this new tyranny and demanding “creative destruction” to sweep away the poor design, built-in obsolescence and sheer wastefulness of today’s appliances. Companies that are obsessed with “upgrading” and adding complexity are not offering better products, they are chasing profit — and the market failure can be seen in the number of appliances being junked every year: the UN says the world produces 50mn tonnes a year of electronic and electrical waste. 

Some of the worst gadgets are those which hold us hostage to their monopoly. We tacitly accept, when we buy a cheapish video games console, mobile phone or printer, that the maker will sting us on our subsequent use. This is the old “razor and blade” technique popularised by Gillette, which sold safety razors at cost and replacement blades for a profit. But some companies push this too far. Printer ink is sometimes more expensive than champagne, according to analysis which found that ink-jet printer ink bought from the manufacturer can be up to 286 per cent pricier than ink from third parties.

Hewlett-Packard, which made my printer, has paid compensation in the US, Australia, and now parts of Europe, to customers who have been blocked, like me, from using non-HP cartridges.

What can we do? Citizens, it seems, must become campaigners for better products. America’s “right to repair” movement, which has now spread around the globe, has scored some notable successes. American farmers have forced John Deere to let them fix their own tractors after outrage at its insistence that only the company, or its authorised dealers, could use the onboard diagnostic software. And Apple has finally agreed, after years of hiding its manuals, to sell its customers components to repair iPhones and laptops. Yet when I took my laptop to the Apple store after one of my children had poured water on it, the saleswoman kept trying to sell me a new one: the repair cost just as much.

There is much further to go. Researching this article, I discovered that the A+++ energy rating on my washing machine doesn’t take account of how long the product will last but only of a 60C wash cycle, which can be gamed, rather as Volkswagen faked its car emissions. Analysis by the UK consumer group Which? has shown that some manufacturers run the machine at much lower temperatures during the test, and score higher energy ratings than those that are honest and heat to 60C.

Much more transparency is needed, over both product life and efficiency. We should be getting 10-year guarantees, not two-year ones. Chargers and cables ought to be universal, as the EU will require next year. Every country should adopt France’s legislation against “planned obsolescence”. And companies should not be able to change the nature of our products without our agreement. We’re constantly told that the new generation of machines is “smart”. But if they don’t do the basic job we bought them for, that’s just a con.

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Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes health, sport, tech, and more. Some of her favorite topics include the latest trends in fitness and wellness, the best ways to use technology to improve your life, and the latest developments in medical research.

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