Right to repair: not a foregone conclusion

Patrick Stockebrandt and Svenja Schwind
Patrick Stockebrandt and Svenja Schwind of the Centre for European Policy.

Both the EU Parliament and the Council welcome the idea of such a “right to repair”. However, it was unclear how this was to be designed in concrete terms for a long time. The EU Commission’s plans are now based, on the one hand, on consumers’ options and, on the other, on the products themselves to increase their resource efficiency. As convincing as a right to repair may sound at first, it is clear that the switch from a “consumption economy” to a “repair economy” is associated with a great many unanswered questions and uncertain effects.

The Commission’s main concern is to encourage consumers to use products for longer. Six options for changing warranty law are currently being discussed. These range from voluntary obligations to far-reaching changes to warranty law. Even a first look at the options shows that a European right to repair does not necessarily mean more consumer rights here. Three out of six options would lead to existing consumer rights being curtailed.

Irrespective of the details that are still open, interference with the right of warranty in pursuit of the goal of longer product service life also does not seem appropriate. This is because a right to repair that restricts consumers’ freedom of choice in the event of a defect is likely to cause acceptance problems. The legitimate goal of extending the service life of products will then have to be enforced, at least in part, against consumer interests, which would unnecessarily bring consumer and environmental protection into conflict. Intervening in warranty law with the goal of restricting consumers’ existing rights of choice is not expedient and, therefore, not appropriate.

Commission disregards better approaches

The goal, on the other hand, can also be achieved by better informing the consumer about the reparability of a product, e.g., through a European repair index. A label (score between 0 and 10) indicates how well the product can be repaired. The idea, which has already been implemented in France, could in principle also be transferred to the EU level. Corresponding preliminary work has been carried out, but this is not taken up in the options presented.

The consumer policy formulation of a right to repair can be supplemented in environmental policy terms by general ecodesign requirements for products. These include, for example, requirements for the selection and use of raw materials or the installation and maintenance of products. In the long term, this should contribute to a circular economy that conserves resources and keeps materials in the economic cycle for as long as possible.

The answer to the question of whether improved reparability is desirable from an environmental policy perspective varies depending on the product. Better reparability can reduce resource consumption in the long term and break the patterns of the “linear throw-away society” through longer life cycles. However, better repairability may also require higher material consumption because components are screwed together rather than glued or soldered. So demand for new products must actually decrease, otherwise the goal of using fewer resources is thwarted.

Further market-based incentives needed

In addition, the ecological benefit of using an appliance for longer is highly dependent on the product group in question. For example, it may be ecologically more advantageous to replace old products – such as power-intense freezers – with new, energy-efficient ones instead of repairing them.

A right to repair can lead to more environmental protection. But it is not a foregone conclusion. Nor can all potential consequences for companies be foreseen in specifications on reparability and thus have corresponding unintended negative effects.

The realization of a circular economy should be supported by further incentives, including market-based ones. Pricing primary raw materials can also reduce resource consumption. This makes it more attractive for companies to design their products in a more circular way – for example, through repair-friendly design or through more recyclable product design.

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