For The Sake Of The Planet.
Janine Jackson interviewed iFixit’s Kyle Wiens about the right to repair’s “moment” for the May 5, 2023, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Wheelchair users in Colorado now can fix their own chairs when they break. It did take a new law, allowing them to access the parts, tools and diagnostics they need to do that—for the same reasons that, for years, John Deere argued that farmers don’t really own the tractors they buy. Because those tractors carry computer codes that are proprietary, farmers just have an “implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”
As our next guest has said, the notion of actually owning the things you buy has become revolutionary, if ownership includes your right to modify or repair those things. But it’s a revolution that is underfoot. So let’s catch up.
Kyle Wiens runs iFixit, an online repair community and parts retailer that demystifies technology and empowers consumers. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Kyle Wiens.
Kyle Wiens: Thank you for having me back on.
JJ: We spoke almost exactly six years ago, in April 2017, when John Deere was arguing, with a straight face, that farmers shouldn’t really own their tractors, because if they had access to the software involved, they might pirate Taylor Swift music.
And at the time, you said it’s not all gloom and doom; there is hope on the horizon in terms of states and places ready to move on right-to-repair legislation, and it seems to be happening. I’m seeing words like “momentum” attached to the right-to-repair efforts. So bring us up to date.
KW: Well, it definitely took this long to get here. We have introduced agriculture right-to-repair bills every year since we chatted. And it’s only now, it’s only in the last couple weeks, that we finally have a bill make it over the finish line, and actually get signed into the law.
JJ: And that’s where? But other states, I feel like I’m reading, they’re bubbling up, but maybe not getting through, right?
KW: So yeah, so far this year, 28 different states have introduced right-to-repair bills of different kinds. Some are targeting farm equipment, some are targeting consumer electronics, some targeting appliances.
Colorado’s made it over the finish line for farm equipment. So, for the first time, John Deere and others are going to be required to share that software and the tools that they’ve been saying for so long that farmers shouldn’t have. That’s absolutely huge.
Governor Polis signed it into law last week, with a big red tractor in front of the capitol building in Denver. So that was the most exciting visible moment. But we’ve had some other legislative wins along the way as well.
JJ: I know that here in New York state, late last year, early this year, Governor Hochul signed something. But I know that, as pretty much always happens with legislation, what went in wasn’t what came out.
I wonder if you can speak to maybe what was lost there, but also what’s the lesson for other states when they’re trying to push through this kind of legislation?
KW: Absolutely. So New York is the first broad, sweeping electronics right-to-repair bill. It says if you’re going to sell an electronics product in New York, you have to make available the parts, tools and information that consumers would need to fix it. And it levels the playing field between the dealerships, the Apple stores of the world, and the rest of us. So that’s fantastic.
The modifications—two main things that got watered down in the New York bill at the last minute: One is, it only applies to future products, so only applies to products that you would buy after July, which is a little bit annoying, because generally the things that break are the things you already have. So it sets the stage for the future, but it doesn’t apply retroactively.
And the other thing is, the governor exempted business products, so things like copy machines and servers and enterprise products, products that hospitals and schools depend on. And so we are optimistic that other states will fix the loopholes that the governor introduced.
JJ: Let me ask you, who is still opposing right-to-repair measures, and have their arguments shifted? Or is it still “nefarious third-party actors might get involved,” or “consumers might hurt themselves repairing things”? What is the opposition line?
KW: Having advocated for this for the last 20 years, almost, I feel like I’m trapped in the Groundhog Day movie. It’s the same arguments over and over in every state. The arguments haven’t changed since we talked last, and the arguments are really infantilizing.
They say things like, “farmers can’t repair their own equipment.” Of course they can. That’s how all of us get our food, is a farmer using equipment that they have repaired. There’s no farm, there’s no farmer, that is not repairing their own equipment. It’s just preposterous.
So electronics manufacturers say the same thing. They say you can’t fix your iPhone, you might hurt yourself. Well, the only people I’ve seen hurt themselves with a smartphone are folks using it with a cracked screen and cutting their finger.
JJ: The right to repair is so many things. It’s about consumer power, as against corporate overreach. It’s about twisting the law to give power to the already powerful. But it’s also, and folks should understand, it’s an environmental concern, at a fundamental level, yeah?
KW: Absolutely. The products that we use have a huge amount of embodied energy and resources that go into it. The smartphone in your pocket took over 250 pounds of raw material dug out of the ground. Collectively, we manufacture about 1.5 billion smartphones a year.
So think about it: 1.5 billion smartphones multiplied by 250 pounds each. It’s a literal mountain dug out of the earth every single day to make the technology that we have. And then we only use a phone for a couple of years, toss it in a drawer and buy another one.
We have to find a way, for the sake of the planet, for the sake of our future, to use these things longer, and manufacture fewer at the beginning.
JJ: I just feel like, folks might read it as the little guy against the man, and it’s really about the kind of world that we want to live in. I mean, it seems so big to me. It seems such an encompassing issue.
KW: Absolutely. It’s a huge environmental impact, the embodied energy in all the products that we have.
But it’s also about cost and consumer rights. If you go and you buy a refrigerator right now, the typical lifespan of a new appliance is about seven years. And I don’t think anyone wants to buy a refrigerator that’s only going to last seven years. You’d expect it to last 15 or 20.
JJ: Exactly. So it’s a big question, in terms of how do you want to live, in terms of what you want to have in your home, and then, who do you want to be reliant on? Because the argument of a lot of these companies is, oh yeah, sure, you can repair this stuff. It’s just you need to come to us to repair it. We need to be the only ones to repair it. So as you said six years ago, it’s about a lockdown on the aftermarket.
KW: And that control comes with a lack of local self-reliance. We find, in rural communities in particular, this is very important. Farmers talk about how, hey, it’s four hours to drive to the nearest dealer. I have to haul my tractor four hours each way. That’s crazy.
And this all has been ushered in by electronics. This is not a moment where all the manufacturers got together and decided to be evil all at once. Instead, what is happening is, electronics and software are moving into all of our products. And it provides tools for manufacturers to intentionally lock products down. But it also creates this accidental path where, like, I don’t think the appliance companies are trying to make a microwave that only lasts seven years, but they put electronics in it that don’t last that long, and they haven’t figured out how to backfill that with repair models that will compensate.
JJ: I saw an article in Harvard Business Review, but I suspect it’s going to be a line that folks will see in whatever media they’re reading, that said, hey, right to repair, it sounds cool, essentially, but “manufacturers might strategically adjust new product prices to mitigate their foreseeable profit loss from the right-to-repair legislation.”
And, let me also add, “Even though people might buy fewer new products, easier repair could lead more consumers to use old, energy-inefficient products, resulting in a higher environmental impact.”
Any response from you on that kind of line of argument?
KW: Yeah, I mean, that’s interesting. On the one hand, I’m kind of okay with new products costing a little bit more if they last longer, right? I’d happily pay 20% more for a refrigerator that lasted twice as long. That would be fine.
On the product-energy perspective, you know, for a long time it was true that upgrading your appliances, particularly your refrigerator, would yield huge energy savings. Around 2000, 2005 or so, that really plateaued. We stopped gaining huge efficiency with new products. There’s incremental gains, but they’re pretty darn minuscule.
So there’s no one out there where replacing a 10-year-old refrigerator with a new one, that makes sense purely from a energy-consumption perspective. The embodied energy in manufacturing that refrigerator is greater than the efficiency gains that you’re going to see.
JJ: And I guess I resist the idea that, well, if you want things to be better, societally, then manufacturers are just going to increase the prices. Like, that’s not an automatic, that can be a conversation we have. If your CEO is taking home eleventy billion dollars a year, maybe there are other ways that we can talk about resourcing the kind of world we want to live in, I guess I think.
KW: Absolutely. And hopefully competition will bear this out. France has a repairability labeling law, where products have to be labeled, next to the price, with how easy or hard they are to fix. And the surveys they’ve done found that eight in ten consumers would pick a more repairable product over their favorite brand. So I think you’re going to see a shift towards the companies that really get on board with making longer-lasting products.
JJ: All right, then. We’ve been speaking with Kyle Wiens, co-founder and CEO of iFixit, an online repair community and parts retailer. Thank you so much, Kyle Wiens, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
KW: Happy fixing!