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‘Right To Repair’ Is Consumer Centric, Empowers The Entire Value Chain

This may rightly tilt the balance of power in favor of the customer and ultimately persuade the manufacturers to a more holistic, symbiotic ‘reparability’ model.

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‘Right to repair’ movement advocates the right of consumers to be able to repair their products. 

Most manufactures resist, many impede & foil. They thwart, by making repairs inaccessible. They ‘plan’ obsolescence, and push re-purchases. In most other cases they dictate where, and who repairs the devices; and at what price. Manufactures make the repair process tedious, and extremely expensive affair.

The consumer pays the price.

Customers at the mercy of the manufacturer, rights trampled upon

Customers are increasingly nudged, mostly lured the towards a ‘buy-use-discard-buy’ behavior. Those ‘stubborn’ who brush away the temptation suffer obsoleteness, and condemned to a slowing phone, rattling washing machine and a noisy AC. Gaming is boring when the console needs to be repeatedly ‘reset’. 

‘Right to repair’ is crucial for the consumers, but equally so for the economic ecosystem, and particularly critical for the informal economy. A Crux study across 18 states, covering 12000 gadget users articulates that over 3 crores low wage workers, and about 6% of the informal economy engages in repair & refurbishing. They prolong usability, optimize cost of ownership, and enhance value, but getting increasingly squeezed & cornered by the onslaught of the ‘no repair only replacement’ push.

While the consumer pays to replace the ‘operating & acceptable’ devise the society ends up paying a huge price as well. Materials used to produce electronic devices are highly polluting. The omnipresent washing machine contributes to the heat-trapping emissions throughout its life cycle. The hallowed iPhone uses even more polluting material. 

Opaque layer of discrimination; tragedy of consumers  

Manufacturers advocate company-owned or company-operated repair facilities. This ‘monopolistic’ model is overpriced on one hand, cumbersome on the other, and goes against the very grain of consumer-centricity. In non-metros and dispersed areas customer support is inconsistent, burdensome or non-existent. It concentrates power into the hands of the few at the cost of millions of smaller businesses. 

Admittedly there is merit for certain product categories, but a blanket opposition to the ‘right to repair’ is anti-consumer, short-termism and stark exploitation. The argument of infringement of intellectual property is merited. Similarly safety against potentially dangerous components such as high-energy lithium-ion batteries is legitimate. 

However most other concerns like display replacement, reputational damage to a brand due to faulty repairs etc. are hyperbolic and must be challenged.

Most simply give up. Others give in

The Crux study highlights a distressing picture. Most consumers seeking repair or redressal spend on average 150 minutes in calling queues. Over 65% must call at least thrice. The poor amongst them makes on average 4 calls for ‘human interface’, 7 to be ‘heard’. Most get exasperation after the third; and simply give up. Others give in.  

55% of the consumers believe that manufacturers coax, (actually) extract profits disproportionate to the marginal improvements in the newer versions. Over 65% of the respondents wanted maintenance, re-use, upgrades bundled in the purchase. She would be delighted if the product life-span is increased.

This will enhance reputation.

Study concludes that over 60% of the consumers are dissatisfied; over 85% of the poor extremely so. Over a fourth of the respondents believe that the gadgets are sold with ‘built-in fragility’. 

Promise gap, trust deficit; consumers are at a great disadvantage 

Manufacturers must offer durable models, cheaper ‘replacements’. Similarly product design must be modular, disassembling; repairs more straightforward, enabling. Producers need to be transparent; in words equally in deed. They should address the negativity around planned obsolescence i.e. product designed to shorten gadget’s utility. 

In the meanwhile, UK is moving forward towards right-to-repair framework. It has taken 70 long years. Elsewhere, the USA too is crossing the hump. The Presidential executive order will curb manufacturers’ power.

Producers must advance consumer right, not diminish it 

Product performance, reliability and cost are the heart of consumer-seller engagement model. Reparability is equally so. Laws transfer, actually bestows control to the buyer. Morality& ethics guide us in similar direction. 

The assumption that, in a market led competitive economy the firms ‘always’ serve the interests of consumers is flawed. Consumer is unable to resist, is the weaker party, vulnerable and easily exploited. Producers are cushioned by the investors, often shielded by the government.

Its time the government recognises that the battle is invariably unfair, always unequal. It must go beyond recognizing, focus on encouraging & supporting the consumer protection movement. 

The right to repair debate has several hues, involves many more stakeholders. While the western world is primarily focusing on the environmental impact of e-waste and sustainable manufacturing, India must singularly focus on protecting low wage jobs, its smaller enterprises and millions of consumers. The polity must coax and even regulate the manufactures to create sustainable holistic, symbiotic reparability model. 

Policymakers must embrace the idea that ‘restrictions to repair’ raises costs, delays repairs, stifles innovation and piles up electronic waste. It erodes business opportunities for the SMEs, and equally hurts the job prospects of the uneducated (but) skilled. 

More economic, less ecological 

Unlike in the western world the ‘right to repair’ in India is more economic, less ecological.  Policymakers must develop an ‘ease-of-repair’ framework that that guides; serves as a technical reference, and much more. The scorecard must be displayed (like the price), and should be part of every communication. 

Policymakers must incentivise, as well as persuade the manufactures to create a cadre of skilled technicians, and an array of service centers. Industry must proactively engage with the consumers, assuaging their anxiety. This alone will reassure the consumer, ensure quality of repair.  Licensing, training, motivating and monitoring entities will bring in accountability and responsibility in the largely disconnected, unstructured and Laissez-faire system.

There are several good case studies. But, none better than the automobile industry, where the manufacturers and repair shops have co- invested in capacity building, enhancing standards, quality and co-branding.   Every stakeholder has benefited.

This may rightly tilt the balance of power in favor of the customer and ultimately persuade the manufacturers to a more holistic, symbiotic ‘reparability’ model.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Dr. Vikas Singh

The author is a senior economist, columnist, author and a votary of inclusive development

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