Right to repair: Large scale IT buyers can influence product design... and they should

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Right to repair: Large scale IT buyers can influence product design... and they should
Managers should voice their organisations’ sustainability requirements with manufacturers.
Photo by Nikolai Chernichenko on Unsplash

Private and public sector procurement stands at a critical crossroad.

Traditionally, procurement managers have been tasked with getting the right supplies in time, while cutting costs and achieving efficiencies. But as their organisations commit to a more circular economy and plan to lower or even neutralise their carbon emissions, procurement managers are now required to consider the life cycle impacts of the products they buy, as well as reducing sustainability risk.

More than ever, this means getting smart about the products they source, but also the supply chains where they’re made, and even influencing product design upfront. This evolution in the role of procurement, especially of IT procurement, is relevant today as Australia debates the introduction of Right to Repair regulations, which would likely impact the procurement and usable life of IT devices procured in the country.

Building a right to repair culture could help to lower the barriers and improve access to repairing IT products, curb planned product obsolescence, and, when integrated into product cycle planning, even impact product design. The introduction of a Right to Repair infrastructure in Australia would benefit the end users of technology by allowing them to be used longer, refurbished for secondary users, and significantly reduce life cycle emissions as well as reduce e-waste.

Barriers to repairing IT devices

As a representative of TCO Development, the organisation behind the IT sustainability certification TCO Certified, I was recently invited by the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into the Right to Repair in Australia to discuss our views. We believe the establishment of the Right to Repair is needed as it can help to address (though not entirely solve) some of the existing barriers to repairing products.

One of these barriers, for example, is the continuing problem of false claims from some IT manufacturers that certain products are unsafe to open up and repair. For low voltage products like smartphones and notebooks, these claims are not always accurate, and are sometimes intended to discourage repair of the device.

Another common barrier to repairing products is the short battery life of some devices. Our research shows that actual battery life often deviates from the declared number of battery cycles in manufacturer documentation. Moreso, even if batteries’ lives are exhausted, it is sometimes very hard for the product owners to replace these batteries. This is critical because battery life is often one reason why users may switch out their equipment prematurely, when in fact it is a replaceable component that can effectively extend product life.

Procurement is uniquely positioned to directly influence the IT industry to produce more repairable products, and to design them with a mindset of circularity and sustainability.

Manufacturers should, for instance, make available spare parts, product schematics and repair manuals to either qualified technicians or to owners themselves (depending on the product category) to enable repair. The cost of replacing parts should also be more competitive, as in many cases today the cost of repairing or refurbishing is sometimes close to the price of a new product, which discourages owners from repairing their devices.

Repair itself should also be more focused only on the faulty component. For example, a common practice today is that repairers replace an entire motherboard instead of just replacing a faulty chip, which, again, makes repairing unnecessarily expensive. Some of these issues may be addressed by the Right to Repair, ultimately requiring manufacturers to make product repair a more viable option.

Purchasers hold one of the keys to bring repairable products in a circular economy

But alongside the imminent introduction of a Right to Repair in Australia, there’s also a critical role that large-scale buyers need to play for us to evolve to a more circular economy. A lot of the recent discussions on the Right to Repair that were covered at the Productivity Commission’s public hearings last month were focused on consumer awareness and their ability to repair devices. However, even environmentally conscious consumers will often decide on their purchases at the point of sale based on factors beyond sustainability, including the look and feel of products. As a result, individual consumers are unlikely to exert a lot of pressure on product manufacturers to design more sustainable and circular devices.

Large-scale purchasers, on the other hand, are experiencing renewed stakeholder pressure to consider other factors such as environmental impact, life expectancy, supply chain ethics, and – let’s now add this one to the list – repairability, all in line with their organisations’ sustainability goals. And although there is currently insufficient involvement of procurement managers in the supply chain, there’s also no one better placed than them to apply pressure on the manufacturers for more circular and sustainably designed products. Unlike individual consumers, large-scale procurement in both the private and public sectors have significant leverage and power to influence product design, where a large percentage of the sustainability impact lies.

A good place to start for procurement managers is rethinking about what their organisations do at the end of their procurement cycles. Today, many private and public sector organisations continue to rotate their organisations’ office equipment every three years or so without even assessing a real need for replacement. But the reality is that in many cases, there is still plenty of life left in these devices. Most desktop computers, laptops, phones, printers, and headsets can all live for longer than three years, though repairing may be needed. The ability to repair, therefore, is a legitimate requirement large-scale buyers can take to product manufacturers.

The task for procurement managers therefore is two-fold. One, they can and should voice their organisations’ sustainability requirements with manufacturers, including the real ability for them to repair their IT devices. This can shape product design. We’ve seen this in Europe, and it can also start happening here in Australia. And secondly, they could and should extend the use of their existing devices, and not dispose of them at the end of a procurement cycle if it’s not needed. This will signal to manufacturers that something is changing, that easy product replacement is no longer an option, and that repairability is now a serious requirement from their large customers. This will also help to shape product design, and ultimately lead to a more circular economy. Both procurement managers and the Right to Repair can make this possible.

Clare Hobby is Director of Purchaser Engagement at TCO Development.

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