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Why France’s New Reparability Index is a Big Problem

In a world first last month, France began requiring manufacturers of certain electronic devices, including smartphones and laptops, to tell consumers how repairable their products are. Manufacturers who sell these devices in France must give their products a rating, or “repairability index”, based on a series of criteria, including the ease of disassembly of the product and the availability of spare parts and technical documents. While France will not impose fines on the use of the index until next year, some companies have already started posting scores for their products.

The Repairability Index represents part of France’s effort to tackle planned obsolescence, the intentional creation of limited-life products that need to be replaced frequently and the transition to a more circular economy where waste is minimized. But it also has global implications. Repair supporters say the index will serve as a litmus test for other countries with similar regulations, help consumers make better choices, and hopefully inspire companies to make more repairable devices.

“It’s a big step in the right direction,  » said Ugo Vallauri, co-founder of Restart Project, a London-based reparations advocacy organization.

In recent years, electronic components of all shapes and sizes have become more difficult to repair due to a combination of design choices and software locks that often require proprietary manufacturer tools to pass. The cost and complexity of repair means that many consumers don’t even bother to repair old electronics, instead throwing them away for new ones that require additional energy and resources to produce. In 2020, the French government estimates that only 40% of broken electronic devices in the country have been repaired.

To increase this percentage, France passed an anti-waste law last year requiring electronics manufacturers to make a repairability index visible on their products. The index, which initially applies to smartphones, laptops, TVs, washing machines and lawn mowers, is presented as a score out of 10, with a higher number indicating a more repairable device.

Manufacturers classify their products using worksheets that incorporate five criteria: availability of technical documents to facilitate repair, ease of disassembly, availability of spare parts, price of spare parts, and a generic category for repair problems specific to this class of products. All the information needed to calculate the index must also be made available to consumers at the time of purchase.

Eventually, France intends to extend the score to other classes of consumer products. By 2024, the repair index will change to a “durability index” that not only tells customers how repairable a product is, but also describes its overall robustness.

While the Repairability Index became an official requirement on January 1, many manufacturers are slowing its implementation, according to Vallauri. “There really wasn’t enough time to apply it at the start of 2021,” Vallauri said, explaining that some of the scoring criteria were only agreed towards the end of last year.

But a net of scores is starting to emerge. The French spare parts business Spareka publishes repairability indices as it receives them from manufacturers, and so far its website includes scores for Asko washing machines, Samsung TVs, OnePlus smartphones, etc.

The scoring system has its limits. Vallauri explained that the indices had been developed through an intensive stakeholder process that involved input from manufacturers as well as consumer organizations. Ultimately, this led to compromises. For example, as Adèle Chasson of the French repair organization Stop Planned Obsolescence noted in a blog post, laptop and smartphone makers can get a “free point” by providing consumers with information. on different types of software updates, such as security or system updates. upgrades – information that may have nothing to do with the degree of repair of the device.

More worryingly, perhaps, manufacturers will self-report their scores, and it’s unclear whether there will be rigorous government oversight to ensure all calculations are done correctly.

“We have certainly seen manufacturers abuse this type of rating system in the past,” said Kyle Wiens, CEO of repair site iFixit, which has helped advise the French government on the development of the index. (In fact, France’s index was inspired by the repairability scores that iFixit has assigned to products for years.) But Wiens also suspects that the competition will help keep greenwashing in check: Apple, for example, could call Samsung if its competitor comes out with a questionably high repairability rating for a flagship smartphone.

“Anytime you have something like that, you’ll see competitors pushing each other back,” Wiens said.

Repair advocates across Europe are closely monitoring the deployment of the French index in the hope that it soon spreads beyond French borders. In November, the European Parliament voted in favor of drafting laws requiring EU-wide reparability labeling. Vallauri said the EU was still “probably in a few years” with repairability scores appearing in all stores in every member country, but a bill is expected to emerge this year. The fact that France chose to go first with its own score, he said, “shows that it is possible” and represents “a good learning opportunity for other countries which can now s. ‘build on what French lawmakers have created ”.

The repair community is also interested in seeing the impact of the French rating system on consumers and manufacturers.

In September, the French government published the results of a study examining how 140,000 online shoppers met a beta version of the Repairability Index incorporating all final criteria except the price of spare parts. He found that customers tended to avoid buying laptops with a repair rating compared to laptops that lacked it. Project leader Laurianne Vagharchakian, a behavioral science researcher with the French government, attributes this to the fact that the study’s average repairability index, at 5.4 out of 10, was probably “not very motivating and attractive. For potential buyers. Other research suggests that consumers prefer products with labels indicating a longer shelf life over competing and shorter shelf life products, and that in some cases they may be willing to pay much more for the product. sustainable.

If repair scores start to influence consumer behavior across France, as these results suggest, manufacturers are likely to feel pressure to make devices easier to repair. Vallauri and Wiens both stressed the importance of mandatory French repair scores to potentially force a radical change in the way products are made.

« We believe that once something becomes a requirement it’s not really a problem for a manufacturer anymore, ”said Vallauri. “They just have to think of it as one of their variables to bring a product to market. Thus, the more certain manufacturers choose to make products more repairable, this will motivate others, at least for fear of missing something, to improve their practices.. »

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