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Society is (finally) standing up against the throwaway economy. Smartphones are notably in the spotlight, as they are particularly harmful to the environment due to the rare earths they contain. That is why environmental organisations like the Right-to-repair movement are influencing legislation, and the first legal requirements have already been passed. But the industry is still having a hard time buying in.

According to the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), we produce around 53.6 million tons of e-waste every year – and this number is still on the rise. There are several ways to reverse the trend. Do we really need a new smartphone or tablet, a new computer, switch, or server every two to three years? The equipment can easily remain in use for a longer period and for some applications a used device is perfectly adequate. Additionally, old equipment must be easy to dismantle so that as many components as possible can be recycled without great effort.

Fortunately, society is increasingly resisting the throwaway economy. Environmental organisations are developing solutions to reduce e-waste. The right-to-repair movement, for example, wants to make it easier to repair electrical devices and thus extend their lifetime. Meanwhile, legislators all over the world are planning and passing corresponding legal requirements.

Sustainability vs. short product cycles

No doubt, this trend is great for the environment, but it challenges the classic business model of all manufacturers who still want to shorten product cycles and convince consumers to buy the new models as soon as they become available on the market. Therefore, a lot of money is spent on promoting the sale of new devices. At the same time, spare parts are extremely expensive, and repairs are not only costly but also cumbersome. Additionally, many mobile phone contracts still include a new subsidised smartphone every two years to increase sales for new devices. If you always have the latest model, you are of course happy to show the world that you are up-to-date and at the forefront.

But how much innovation can actually be driven when a new model gets launched in less than a year? As a rule of thumb, the new product launches include some camera, battery, or chip improvements rather than massive innovation. That might be one good reason for a steadily increasing number of people who think smart and weigh up between hype and sustainability. They are buying refurbished smartphones instead of new ones – or simply using their own devices for much longer than two years. Today, sustainability is becoming increasingly important in the buyer’s decision-making process when buying smartphones and other electrical or electronic devices. This is great, but caution is still required because not every advertising message related to sustainability delivers what it promises on closer inspection.

EU: Eco-design rules for smartphones

In November 2022, the European Commission published new eco-design rules for mobile devices. According to these rules, manufacturers will be obliged to make repair information and certain spare parts, such as displays or batteries, available to professional repair companies as well as end users for seven years. In addition, these products should be designed in a way that components can be replaced more easily. This should make it easier to repair and reuse second-hand devices and promote recycling and resource efficiency. Additionally, manufacturers must provide software updates for at least five years. The draft law is to be passed before the end of 2022.

This does not go far enough for the European Right-to-Repair Initiative, an alliance of organisations that want to facilitate and promote the repair of devices. The movement would like to see a ‘real right to repair’, as it is propagated in the USA, for example. The initiative’s network includes European sustainability organisations as well as many private repair initiatives, which now exist in almost every major town throughout Germany.

USA: Right to Repair on the rise since 2021

The USA is already a step ahead: US President John Biden has supported the Right-to-Repair movement since 2021. According to a blog post on Regulatory Oversight, published by the consulting firm Troutman Pepper, he has even persuaded Apple to publish self-service repair instructions for end users. Additionally, components and tools that are actually only intended for Genius Experts in the stores will even become available to end users in the future. Four weeks earlier, the online magazine Grist reported that Microsoft ‘has promised concrete steps to facilitate independent repair of its devices, following pressure from its shareholders’.

In the US, right-to-repair regulations are bills or regulations designed to ensure that consumers or repair shops can repair, service, and/or modify the household appliances or electronic devices they purchase. This should be possible even if the manufacturer has attempted to require consumers to use only its own original spare parts and services. President Biden explained this in his speech on 24 January 2022: “Restricting the right to repair raises prices for consumers and means independent repair shops can’t compete for jobs.” Similar regulations are also envisaged in the US for agricultural equipment and for cars and transportation vehicles.

This means that end users and independent repair shops should once again have access to tools and relevant information. This used to be quite normal, but the more density got applied to electronics, the more specialised and difficult repairs became. This is true for cars as well as for electronic and IT equipment. The Right-to-Repair initiative aims to make repairs relatively easy, for example with modular designs and standardised components.

Repair-friendly and durable IT products and solutions

As with smartphones, IT devices are being re-imagined. Customers who are looking for maintenance and repair-friendly servers and storage systems should choose modular and scalable solutions that are equipped with energy-efficient components. These devices can be opened, and many components can be easily removed or dismantled by users or technical support teams. This makes replacement or repairs a success. Further, it is relatively easy to ensure that these devices remain state of the art for years with new components and software updates.

Scalable, modular solutions can be upgraded, modernised, or expanded as needed. As such, users always operate a customised solution that is geared to current requirements. This consumes less energy and resources and is more durable than a traditional system with lots of built-in components for potential growth that might not be needed at all. When selecting a solution that grows with the business, the focus should be on sufficient slots and current standard interfaces.

That’s how we at RNT have worked for ages and the design principle of our modular Tormenta Varioscaler server family has always been part of our DNA. Additionally, we design all our Storage products and solutions in a resource-saving way by providing the highest possible density and integrating only the quality components that are necessary to get the job done. The support and repair service for our products and solutions extends up to five years. This is how long the end-of-service-life (EOSL) licences of the component manufacturers usually run. Further, we offer our customers dedicated support contracts that keep selected components in stock for a longer period.