Thursday, 23 March 2023

Europe tools up for the repairable future

by Earn Media

The European Commission has laid out another piece of its Circular Economy Action Plan today — adopting a proposal to set common EU rules which are intended to make it easier for consumers to get faulty products repaired.

The “right to repair” measures are aimed at reducing e-waste by preventing repairable products from being prematurely junked.

A Commission proposal last year set out to expand the bloc’s ecodesign rules. The right to repair rules are designed to build on that. The EU wants the full sweep of policies to promote longer tech product lifespans to boost sustainability and work toward its headline goal of being carbon neutral by 2050. (Aka the European Green Deal.)

Goods for which EU reparability requirements currently exist include household washing machines and washer-dryers, dishwashers, refrigerating appliances, electronic displays, vacuum cleaners, and servers and data storage. But mobile phones, cordless phones and tablets are slated to soon be added to the list — once respective ecodesign reparability requirements are adopted by the bloc’s lawmakers. So the consumer electronics industry is certainly in the frame.

A right to repair for consumer kit including mobiles and tablets was floated by the Commission back in 2020 — when the EU’s executive said electronics and ICT would be a priority for the expansion of the Ecodesign Directive to help tackle the growing scourge of e-waste.

Today’s package of measures propose a supportive framework to wrap around specific reparability requirements and encourage the development of the necessary services.

“Over the last decades, replacement has often been prioritised over repair whenever products become defective and insufficient incentives have been given to consumers to repair their goods when the legal guarantee expires. The proposal will make it easier and more cost-effective for consumers to repair as opposed to replace goods,” the Commission wrote in a press release. “Additionally, more demand will translate into a boost to the repair sector while incentivising producers and sellers to develop more sustainable business models.”

The proposed measures include a new consumer right to repair both for products that are under guarantee and those no longer covered by a legal guarantee.

“Today’s proposal will ensure that more products are repaired within the legal guarantee, and that consumers have easier and cheaper options to repair products that are technically repairable (such as vacuum cleaners, or soon, tablets and smartphones) when the legal guarantee has expired or when the good is not functional anymore as a result of wear and tear,” the Commission suggested.

For covered tech products still under warranty, sellers will be required to offer repair except when it is more expensive than replacement. While, beyond the legal guarantee, the Commission said EU consumers will get a new set of rights and tools to “make ‘repair’ an easy and accessible option”.

Here’s a summary of the main measures in the Commission proposal:

  • A right for consumers to claim repair to producers, for products that are technically repairable under EU law, like a washing machine or a TV. This will ensure that consumers always have someone to turn to when they opt to repair their products, as well as encourage producers to develop more sustainable business models
  • A producers’ obligation to inform consumers about the products that they are obliged to repair themselves
  • An online matchmaking repair platform to connect consumers with repairers and sellers of refurbished goods in their area. The platform will enable searches by location and quality standards, helping consumers find attractive offers, and boosting visibility for repairers. It will also enable consumers to sell used products to refurbishers
  • European Repair Information Form which consumers will be able to request from any repairer, bringing transparency to repair conditions and price, and make it easier for consumers to compare repair offers
  • European quality standard for repair services will be developed to help consumers identify repairers who commit to a higher quality. This ‘easy repair’ standard will be open to all repairers across the EU willing to commit to minimum quality standards, for example based on duration, or availability of products

Additionally today, the Commission announced measures targeting ‘greenwashing’ — via a Green Claims Directive — proposing common criteria for environmental claims by product manufacturers in a bid to combat the flood of misleading marketing that’s sprung up to feed off consumer concerns about climate change.

The bloc is already on the way to making USB-C a common charger standard after lawmakers backed a proposal to further shrink mobile e-waste last year.

Making ‘right to repair’ a reality

Speaking during a press conference to announce the dual proposals — both of which will need the backing of the European Parliament and Council before they can be adopted as EU law — the bloc’s justice and environmental commissioners, Didier Reynders and Virginijus Sinkevičius, said the measures are intended to work together to drive sustainability.

“This proposal is the latest in a series of measures to make the ‘right to repair’ a reality,” said Reynders. “First, we needed to ensure that there were more and more repairable products on the market. This is what we did with the proposal for a Regulation on eco-design, or eco-design of sustainable products… Secondly, it was also important to enable consumers to make sustainable choices based on reliable information.

“This is what we wanted to improve with the proposal “Empowering consumers for the green transition”, also adopted in March 2022. And finally, with the proposal for a Green Claims Directive… Our proposal is the last piece of the puzzle to ensure access to repair in the after-sales phase. To make repair easier, more accessible, and more attractive.”

The repair proposal aims to empower EU consumers to ask for a free repair of a faulty product when it’s under warranty (so up to two years after purchase) — which must be provided by the manufacturer if it’s less or the same cost as a full replacement.

In the case of goods that break down out of warranty, Reynders said the goal is to make it cheaper and easier for consumers to obtain a repair. A Commission Q&A on the plan suggests there will be an obligation on manufacturers to repair a product for 5-10 years after purchase (depending on the type of product) — unless a repair is technically impossible.

“The rule will be clear: The producer will no longer be able to refuse to repair your washing machine, unless repairing it is technically impossible. In other words, the producers will be obliged to look into the repair options,” he suggested. “This obligation will apply to goods that are repairable by design in the EU. Such as a washing machine, dishwasher or TV and soon also smartphones or tablets.

“This obligation will apply to the goods that are directly covered by any repairability requirements under EU law, such as the rules on Ecodesign. And we will continue to add more product groups to this list in the future, as we want Ecodesign products to become the norm. You can therefore notice the strong interconnection between today’s proposal and the Ecodesign proposal.”

“Producers will also have to inform consumers about this obligation and availability of their repair services so that consumers know about their rights,” Reynders added. “The producers will therefore be obliged to repair a product, even if the consumers caused the damage themselves. For this reason, producers can charge a price for repair.”

Per Reynders, the only scenario where a manufacturer will be exempt from the obligation to repair is when repair is impossible — such as when the goods are damaged in a way that makes repair technically unfeasible.

He said the proposal aims to open the door to the development of the repair sector — since consumers will not be obliged to go only to the manufacturer for a repair.

“They will also be able to turn to independent repairers and find other repair services that better meet their needs or offer more attractive options,” he added. “We are therefore removing the obstacles that still deter too many consumers from having repairs done. The obligations and solutions we are presenting with this text will help to reverse this trend.”

A Q&A at the end of the briefing raised questions about the cost of repair — with a member of the press pointing out that cost frequently puts consumers off from trying to repair an item vs buying a new one. On this, Reynders said last year’s Eco Design proposal will be key — suggesting that, over time, it will drive down the cost of repairs by requiring manufacturers to bake repairability and sustainability into product design.

“It means that it’s possible to really cut significantly the cost of repair,” he said. “If a product is designed to be repairable, if there’s access to different parts, components, if you can open up a device. Because often — in the sound sector for example, audio equipment, it is not possible to actually open up a device — you can’t actually get inside it yourself. So the Eco Design approach should simplify things there.”

Bye-bye greenwashing?

On greenwashing, the EU’s proposal aims to introduce “minimum requirements” for businesses that make voluntary environmental claims — in the areas of substantiation, communication, and verification.

“Companies will have to ensure the reliability of their voluntary environmental claims, and communicate their claims in a transparent way. Their claims will need to be checked by an independent verifier against the requirements of the Directive. The verifier will then issue a certificate of compliance recognised across the EU,” the Commission said in a Q&A on the Directive.

“By putting in place this common set of rules within the EU internal market, the proposal will give a competitive advantage to companies who make a genuine effort to develop environment-friendly products, services and organisational practices, and lessen their impact on the environment,” it also suggested, adding that it expects the directive to reduce the risk of legal fragmentation of the single market and save costs for businesses that have their claims certified by an accredited verifier — as well as boosting the credibility of European industries abroad.

“If you make a claim as a company, you will need to be able to prove that claim,” said Sinkevičius, speaking during today’s press conference. “So you will have to show that it’s based on science. And that it is reliable. You will have to be specific and you will need to submit your claim for checks by accredited verifiers to ensure it complies with the new directive — and of course you will need to communicate this information in a manner that’s clear and transparent.

“Taken together, these actions should prevent misleading claims from reaching consumers. They will also make life easier for consumers protection authorities once the claim appears on the market.”

Additional measures in the Commission proposal aim to rein in the proliferation of eco labels that have sprung up touting eye-catching green claims to reel in environmentally conscious consumers. “There are around 230 environmental labels on the EU market and no wonder that consumers are confused,” added Sinkevičius. “This proliferation also hinders sustainable business operating across borders and fragments our single market.

“Under new rules we will only allow new public schemes that work at the EU level. We have to mobilise the resources. We have to work together on reliable EU labels — such as the EU Eco label — and if companies want to bring in new private scheme it will need to be better than the ones that are already in place. So there should be a place for labels that show exceptional performance on environmental sustainability but only in well justified cases.”

The proposal comes armed with “teeth”, per the commissioner — who said Member State agencies will be empowered to set “dissuasive” penalties for dyed-in-the-wool greenwashers.

During the Q&A, he was asked whether carbon offsets would be banned under the Green Claims Directive given many such schemes have been found to be worthless, at best. (And given offsetting does not actually reduce carbon emissions — whereas massive reductions in CO2 are absolutely required if humanity is to avoid climate disaster.)

Sinkevičius said the proposal would not ban carbon offsetting claims altogether. But he said “full” information would have to be provided to consumers to stand up the claims being made and also provided to an independent verifier to check such projects are delivering as claimed. 

Europe tools up for the repairable future by Natasha Lomas originally published on TechCrunch