Empty Promises of Circularity

Each year, humanity uses more resources that the earth can possibly regenerate, leading to the depressing holiday known as Earth Overshoot Day. In 2023, overshoot came in August, while in the 1970’s the day used to come in December—and before then not at all.

As our cycles of consumption continue to accelerate, we are bringing ourselves closer to an uninhabitable planet. There will be a variety of strategies needed to break with our habits of consumption, and repair is a strong tool for doing just that.

Fight to Repair is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

So why are companies, which are quick to jump on the pro-environmental and “circular economy” bandwagon while also restricting repair? These buzzwords and platitudes alone will solve nothing, and can actually obscure what is really being done.

Repair resists “enshittification”

Repair breeds intimate relationships with tools, promotes self-reliance, and builds community as people share their skills. Let’s take the example of bicycles, where the benefits and ease of repair are well-known. E-bike manufacturers are bucking this trend as they attempt to maximize their control over e-bike repairs. While regular bikes are standardized and easy to repair, e-bike makers are seeking exemptions from right-to-repair laws altogether, citing safety concerns (such as exploding batteries) and instead advocate for authorized battery repairs and recycling.

This lockdown of e-bike batteries is a fairly minor example compared to the flagrant software controls used on other products. Cory Doctorow has coined the term “enshittification” for the worsening quality of services and products in the face of corporation’s with dominant market power—often used in tandem with software. For example, Tesla has used software to lie about their battery ranges, make cars less safe when they use 3rd-party parts, and allegedly repossess cars from delinquent buyers. Doctorow reminds us that the same part pairing technology that keeps out third-party parts from connecting with tractors and cars are also in ventilators. Doctorow makes the connection more apparent for us:

By usurping your right to decide who fixes your phone, Apple gets to decide whether you can fix it, or whether you must replace it. Problems solved – and not just for Apple, but for car makers, tractor makers, ventilator makers and more.

Right to repair extends far beyond spare parts for iPhones. It’s an issue of corporate power and control. When we don’t get a McFlurry that’s one thing, but when the cost of healthcare is jacked up because medical device companies use their market power to make hospitals pay more has a different set of stakes. Repair can resist this enshittification by demanding agency, autonomy, and transparency over machines that are currently under the guard of corporations.

Ending ownership doesn’t balance out corporate power

We will need to change a lot to begin to heal our ecological systems. But we are oftentimes fed a narrative that if we leave it to the tech companies they will solve it for us. The idea of benevolent companies saving us, (relying on terms like circularity) are dangerous because it assumes circularity is automatically a good thing that would reduce consumption.

Take Fashion company Rent The Runway as a prime example. The clothing rental company promises its consumers they are helping the environment by curbing their addiction to fast fashion by transitioning to a subscription clothing model. But a study of the company’s environmental impact actually found “you’re better off buying clothes and throwing them away.” It turns out that not buying anything at all is usually the best route to make an impact.

Some argue we should go all in on avoiding ownership because of its environmental benefits. The World Economic Forum is a prime peddler of this narrative, and doesn’t even hide it’s agenda to end ownership. It published a piece in 2016 titled “Welcome To 2030: I Own Nothing, Have No Privacy And Life Has Never Been Better” that shows the extremes of what a world devoid of ownership and agency over our machines would look like:

Once in a while, I will choose to cook for myself. It is easy – the necessary kitchen equipment is delivered at my door within minutes. Since transport became free, we stopped having all those things stuffed into our home. Why keep a pasta-maker and a crepe cooker crammed into our cupboards? We can just order them when we need them.

This also made the breakthrough of the circular economy easier. When products are turned into services, no one has an interest in things with a short life span. Everything is designed for durability, repairability and recyclability.

Repairability and circularity are not intrinsically good. We could see a world that mirrors the model of a tool library where communities pool their resources, thoughtfully engage with repair and material consumption, and offer aid to one another. Or we could slip into a world where we only use corporate-sponsored e-scooters (that people inevitably dump into rivers) and rent clothing boxes because we assume they are better for the environment. If we are going to reverse our habits with overshoot, we will need to take the first approach of self-reliant repair.

Other News

Apple is reportedly countering new EU regulations that require portable batteries to be easily replaceable by arguing that making iPhones with removable batteries would compromise their water-resistant design, as stated by Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering, John Ternus, who emphasized that maintaining water resistance involves using specialized adhesives and sealants that could complicate the opening process for battery replacement; this argument aligns with a clause in the EU rules excluding appliances regularly exposed to water.

Photo by Frankie on Unsplash

Canada is looking to amend its copyright laws by allow the bypassing of digital locks or “technological prevention measures” (TPMs) on electronic devices for the purpose of maintaining or repairing products, addressing the issue of manufacturers’ use of TPMs to restrict third-party access and control over aftermarket repair services, which can lead to increased e-waste and hinder right-to-repair efforts.

The trade-offs between prolonging an appliance’s life for cost savings and environmental benefits, versus opting for newer, potentially more energy-efficient models can be difficult to discern. The increasing complexity of modern appliances and their shorter expected lifespans are factors complicating this decision-making process, but Consumer Reports is offering interactive tools to guide consumers based on purchase price, age, and repair costs.

Dominant electronic health records (EHR) software provider Epic’s closed system approach to data limits the ability of third-party software and applications to seamlessly integrate with its platform, sparking debates about data sharing and patient privacy. Epic’s domination over the healthcare data market highlights the need for consumers to have more open and interoperable systems that empower users and foster innovation.

An elderly couple in Texas tragically died due to extreme heat because they didn’t have the money to fix their air-conditioner—pointing to the extreme stakes involved with our ability to repair the life-sustaining machines we rely on.

Biodegradable printed circuit boards (PCBs), produced using natural fibers and polymers, dissolve in water in just a few hours, and yield valuable metals. This product, developed by a German semiconductor producer, would aim to help tech companies achieve their climate goals by reducing e-waste and carbon footprint associated with traditional PCBs, potentially leading to a 60% reduction in carbon footprint compared to classic PCBs.

Adtech’s data collection practices makes clear the importance of issues of consumer control, transparency, and ownership over data. The problems of the industry highlight the need for individuals to have greater authority over their personal data, devices, and technological interactions in the face of complex proprietary systems and practices.

📚 Lee McGuigan, explains the origins and goals of adtech in her new book “Selling the American People: Advertising, Optimization, and the Origins of Adtech

Disposable vapes are leading to environmental concerns because of their non-biodegradability, toxic components, and lack of recycling options contribute to electronic waste and environmental pollution. Advocates are pushing for retailers to cease selling disposable vapes due to their negative impact on the environment, finite resource wastage, and illegality.

Tweets (X’s?) of the Week

This is what #righttorepair looks like, thanks to @Fairphone for quickly sending out a new USB port (under warranty, based on my description of a likely fault) and providing such clear instructions for replacing it. Phone is now charging fine. This is how it should be!

Source: iFixit

Hey @mrcoffee: Your coffee maker is leaking and we can’t (easily) get to the valve to fix it because you’ve used tri wing screws in your machine. Was this choice to discourage folks from repairing your product? #RightToRepair

Fight to Repair is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.