'We want to move to a market where consumers choose to repair and not replace'

Prof. René Repasi is a proponent of the right to repair
Skyline of Rotterdam.
Woman with demonstration sign in her hand protesting against e-waste.

The right to repair constitutes the biggest change in consumer law in 30 years, says René Repasi. He is a Member of the European Parliament and Professor of Public and Private Interests at Erasmus School of Law. ‘It is indeed a paradigm shift when consumers demand repairs for their products instead of opting for replacements.’

At the time of this interview, René Repasi is deeply engaged in the developments regarding the right to repair. Both as an academic and a politician – he is a Member of the European Parliament for the German SPD. In the fall of 2023, this parliament will debate the law as proposed by the European Commission this spring.

No spare parts, no network

As a Professor of Public and Private Interests, Repasi considers the right to repair a revolutionary change. ‘In the 1990s, consumers were granted the right to choose between repair and having a product replaced by a new one, if it turns out to be defective within the 2-year legal guarantee. It is indeed a paradigm shift when consumers will now choose repair over replacement.

As a consumer you can currently only contact the seller to claim your rights. But the seller is not the producer, he doesn’t have any spare parts on stock and cannot repair the product on his own. It may even be an online seller with nothing but a website. The seller therefore normally responds to a repair claim by the consumer that “it is much easier to give you a new product. You will also benefit from a new two-year guarantee while a repaired product comes with only a one-year guarantee.” It is an incentive created by the old consumer law. In 30 years, we haven’t seen such a dramatic change to consumer law as the one that is now proposed with the Right to Repair.

René Repasi, Professor Public & Private Interests, smiles.

Needless Waste

It is a revolution of the utmost importance to the professor and politician. ‘The question is: how do we make the transition to a truly circular economy, in which products last much longer? It is not only a matter of product quality and product reparability, but also of marketing hypes that stimulate consumerism. Take the commercials for the latest iPhone, for example. It is presented as something you absolutely must have even though it constitutes a marginal product improvement. National governments also benefit from the situation: The more we produce and the more consumers buy, the more profits are made which finance taxes and high wages.’

Yet, a throwaway culture is always a mistake, Repasi thinks. ‘Recycling nowadays mostly comes down to ‘thermal recycling’, which means that products are simply being incinerated. It is a needless waste of raw materials. We want to create new incentives in the market that encourage the consumer to opt for repair over replacement.’

By the end of November, after the European Parliament and Council have adopted their positions, negotiations will start between the Council, Commission and Parliament: the trilogue. The goal is to reach a compromise on the final text by the end of February next year. Once the directive is adopted, the member states have 24 months to implement it into national law. Repasi doesn’t expect this to cause too many problems as the directive leaves little room for implementing diverging laws.

Person replaces graphics card in computer.
Jeshoots.com via Unsplash

Empowering repairers

‘An important question is whether we are addressing the right actors. We currently focus on manufacturers. But independent repairers may be more important and perhaps we should aim at strengthening this group. They tell us that it is not the price of their own labour which makes repair expensive, but the price of spare parts. We are therefore considering adding to the proposal a rule that independent repairers must have access to the code for the 3D printing of spare parts. This will allow them to create the spare part at a reduced cost. Manufacturers, however, oppose this idea referring to safety concerns and intellectual property rights. It will be an important point of discussion.’

No free rein for Asia

Once the directive is adopted, it will be a milestone that won’t go unnoticed by other countries. Should they expect European companies to lose market shares if they are obliged to repair products, to provide spare parts, and to sell less new products? Whilst at the same time Asian manufacturers are free to promote their products – made according to their own standards – to European consumers online? Repasi: ‘The legislation applies to anyone who wants to sell products on the EU internal market to consumers, including Asian sellers. All manufacturers will have to include the costs of repair and of maintaining a supply of spare parts in the calculation of their prices.’

Old washing machines on the streets.

There are two potential outcomes: ‘Manufacturers may decide to limit their sales to the African, Asian and the United States markets. But the European market is the richest market worldwide, with the wealthiest consumers. I don’t think any manufacturer would be inclined to ignore us. I also don’t expect these manufacturers to develop a high-quality line of products for the European market in parallel to a low-quality production line, as this would be too costly. I therefore think that African and Asian markets will ultimately also benefit from better repairable products.’

Passive or strong?

There’s a moral side to Repasi’s vision. ‘Do we consider the European market to consist of a passive group of consumers that only cares about the lowest price? Or is the EU a strong, wealthy market that uses its economic power to bring about change? The latter is in line with the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility, according to which there is an economically strong market that is willing and able to pay a little extra for a positive impact of its economic power on public interests.

More information

René Repasi is Professor of Public and Private Interests at Erasmus School of Law. He is a Member of the European Parliament for the German SPD and holds a seat in the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection. Repasi is the rapporteur for the new Right to Repair legislation, one of his dossiers to foster a circular economy in Europe.

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