Repair or Replace? A question for the digital era

, by Stéphanie-Fabienne Lacombe

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Repair or Replace? A question for the digital era
Electronic waste by Skitterphoto in Pexels

Between unfair wages, heavy mining activities, and important CO2-emissions, the electronic industry is not sustainable in its current practice. In times of home office and digitalisation, almost everyone nowadays possesses an electronic device such as a smartphone or a laptop - and will sooner or later be confronted with some damage and the question of whether to replace or repair the device. This choice has relevant social and environmental impacts that are instigating the EU to take action.

Context: What is the issue?

The production of electronic devices is energy-intensive and often occurs with fossil energies. Electronics require raw materials that are environmentally and socially costly to mine - reproducing extractivist colonial trade patterns between the Global North and South. While lithium - a key material for batteries is particularly un-ecological to extract and ignores local populations in profit generation, cobalt is often imported from conflict areas such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, and its purchase benefits rebel groups responsible for human right infractions. From a social standpoint, the labour rights, for instance, minimum wages and time for rest in assembling factories, often located in China, are disregarded.

On a different note, streaming and cloud services need servers that consume a lot of energy too. Furthermore, the so-called planned obsolescence is incorporated into the devices to reduce their life span and encourage their replacement by consumers. Unfortunately, the recycling of e-waste occurs in insufficient amounts and most of the e-waste ends up in informal landfills and trade systems that lack worker’s health protection.

Repairing - the way out?

Changing global trade patterns to more social and environmental sustainability requires a lot of political will and an economy willing to go that way. While small companies are already engaging in the production of fair and repairable smartphones, national governments only start to take small steps to ensure that human rights and environmental standards are being respected along the supply chain - such as the new supply chain law in Germany.

In the European Union, the issue of electronics is gaining political momentum. Two-thirds of EU citizens would like to use their electronics longer if their performance remained optimal. The Circular Economy Action Plan adopted in 2020, aims at, among others, reducing waste, guiding consumers better through more transparency, and improving the sustainability of products. One of the sectors it is addressing revolves around electronic devices. In this logic, the European Parliament voted for a ’right to repair’ in November 2020 to encourage longer product lifetimes (against programmed obsolescence), reduced costs in repairs, and means to facilitate both through legislation (e.g. oblige manufacturers to provide replacement items for self-repair). In France, the novel “reparability index” aims at guiding the consumer informing them on the costs and possibilities to repair the device they are about to purchase. France aims at a 60% repair rate of electronic devices by 2026. In Sweden, the taxes on repair services were lowered in 2016 to encourage people to repair their devices. In many places across Europe and North America, citizens’ initiative ’repair cafés’, where volunteers help out in getting items fixed, are gaining popularity. Technical repairs can indeed increase the laptop or smartphone’s lifespan and is an efficient way to decrease the negative environmental and social impacts of their production. Even if a repair service can be expensive, studies show that it is more economically viable for the consumer in the long run.

Toward collective action and conciousness

Consumers on the local level can choose to support or reject a system of short device life spans, exploitation-based production, and highly polluting disposal. Repairing or replacing a device is not a lifestyle consideration, but a choice with a social and environmental impact. Putting aside personal decisions and choices, worldwide action needs to continue designing a harm-free electronic sector, with fair wages, environmentally friendly production, and eventually, durable products.

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