Traditionally, when a car breaks down, the solution has been to fix it. Repair manuals, knowledgeable mechanics and auto parts stores make car repairs common, quick and relatively inexpensive. Even with modern computer-equipped vehicles, regular people have plenty they can do: change oil, change tires and many more advanced upgrades.
But when a computer or smartphone breaks, it’s hard to get it fixed, and much more common to throw the broken device away. Even small electronic devices can add up to massive amounts of electronic waste – between 20 million and 50 million metric tons of electronic devices every year, worldwide. Some of this waste is recycled, but most – including components involving lead and mercury – goes into landfills.
Bigger equipment can be just as difficult to repair. Today’s farmers often can’t fix the computers running their tractors, because manufacturers claim that farmers don’t actually own them. Companies argue that specialized software running tractors and other machines is protected by copyright and patent laws, and allowing farmers access to it would harm the companies’ intellectual property rights.
Users’ right to repair – or to pay others to fix – objects they own is in jeopardy. However, in our surveys and examinations of product life cycles, my colleagues and I are finding that supporting people who want to repair and reuse their broken devices can yield benefits – including profits – for electronics manufacturers.
A corporate quandary
At least eight states – Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York and Tennessee – are considering laws that would require companies to let customers fix their broken electronics. The proposals typically make manufacturers sell…