Why we need to law to protect our right to fix things

Opinion: We need to protect our right to repair to address waste management, overconsumption, and to support a circular economy, say Alex Sims and Trish O'Sullivan.

Landfill of whiteware and other household items

We live in an age in which we talk a lot about sustainability, but we have created a disposable society. Many, if not most, products are not designed to last and some companies deliberately promote replacement over repair. Spare parts are difficult to source, or so expensive that when combined with repairers’ fees, it’s cheaper for consumers to buy, say, a new washing machine, rather than repair the one they’ve had for less than a decade.

Worse, companies actively use laws (particularly copyright law) and other practices to prevent repair. These are environmentally damaging laws and practices that are in direct conflict with our need to move to a circular economy.

Readers might find it ridiculous that we would need to legislate to protect our right to repair but that is what it has come to, and New Zealand has some catching up to do. Countries and states around the world are increasingly debating and passing right to repair legislation, including the UK, France, Australia, and various states in the US.

Yet despite the increasing popularity of the ‘right to repair’ around the world, there is no standard or agreed definition. It's broad and includes designing goods so they last longer, making goods that can be repaired more easily, ensuring spare parts and information required for repairs are available, and that goods can be repaired using commonly available tools. The rights that some states have granted can be narrow, however. In Colorado a right to repair law passed in 2022 was originally meant to cover many goods but after some resistance, it was limited to wheelchairs only. Well, who could (or would) refuse to grant the right to repair a wheelchair?

Other measures are being used to encourage the re-design of products, for example, by requiring manufacturers to inform consumers whether their goods can be repaired, and how repairable they are. France, for example, has a successful repairability labelling scheme, similar to the labels we see on washing machines and dishwashers to show their water and electricity usage. In France people can see how durable an appliance is, the ease of repair and the cost of spare parts.

There is a valid concern that a comprehensive right to repair will lead to an increase in prices of some goods. However, that is likely to be offset by cost savings through better quality goods lasting longer and the benefits to society and the environment.

The Austrian government has successfully encouraged consumers to repair goods through a scheme that pays half the cost of repairs of household products for up to €200. A pilot for the scheme showed that over 90 percent of the products taken for repair were repairable.

The right to repair also includes the right to use goods, as manufacturers are increasingly using software in goods to control them. You may have read stories of printers refusing to accept third party cartridges and otherwise perfectly functioning printers that stop functioning because they’ve reached the end of their pre-programmed lives. The issue is only going to get worse as goods increasingly contain software from mobile phones and cars to farming machinery.

New Zealand has yet to begin its right to repair journey, and until we do, the right to repair legislation in other countries could lead to us being the dumping ground for inferior products that could not be sold in countries where legislation demands products last longer and are easy to repair.

We explain the laws in New Zealand that manufacturers and others exploit to prevent repair and their business practices in a journal article published this month, The Right to Repair in New Zealand. Our article recommends changes to a wide range of laws and the introduction of measures such as adopting the French repairability labelling scheme and following Austria’s lead of paying repairers for repairs.

The acts that require changing include the Consumer Guarantees Act, Designs Act, Trade Marks Act and the Crimes Act.

Because of the many acts involved, this part focuses just on the changes required to the Copyright Act 1994:

* Create a spare parts exception. Spare parts are protected by copyright law, which provides manufacturers with a monopoly so they can control the cost and availability of spare parts in New Zealand.

* Amend the protection of software locks (technological protection measures). Currently an independent repairer who works around a software lock during repair faces a potential jail term for up to five years or a maximum $150,000 fine or both. This makes it less likely for independent repairers to fix goods. Canada, which has a similar law to New Zealand, is in the process of passing a bill creating an exception when defeating a software lock for the purposes of diagnosis, repair and maintenance.

* Create an exception so information necessary for repair can be reproduced, including being placed online. Such an exception is required because copyright protects manuals and other information, including diagnostic software, needed for repair goods.

There is a valid concern that a comprehensive right to repair will lead to an increase in prices of some goods. However, that is likely to be offset by cost savings through better quality goods lasting longer and the benefits to society and the environment. Also, the right to repair will foster a thriving repair service industry and second-hand goods market.

In summary, a right to repair requires manufacturers and suppliers to facilitate repair, which goes well beyond merely repairing broken goods. The right to repair is necessary to address environmental issues such as waste management and overconsumption of resources, and supports the development of a circular economy where resources remain in use for as long as possible.

Dr Alex Sims, associate professor in the Department of Commercial Law at the University of Auckland Business School

Dr Trish O’Sullivan, School of Accountancy, Massey University

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, NZ needs to avoid becoming dumping ground of world’s inferior products, 10 November, 2023

Media contact

Margo White I Research communications editor
Mob 021 926 408
Email margo.white@auckland.ac.nz