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Guest Essay: SB 983 will help Californians fix products faster, less expensively

Elizabeth Chamberlain is Director of Sustainability for the free repair manual website iFixit, where she heads internal sustainability projects and represents the company in Right to Repair advocacy. Sander Kushen is a consumer advocate for California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), which works to protect public health and consumer interests. Both are cosponsoring groups of State Bill 983 that is designed to end the monopoly some manufacturers have to exclusively repair electronics and appliances.

The pandemic made many of us realize how much we depend on our electronic devices and appliances as lifelines to the outside world.

But more dependence on connected devices also means more irritation when they break. A broken phone or laptop can bring our life to a screeching halt until it’s fixed.

With so much tech dependence, you might expect to see more options for repair. Instead, we’ve seen the opposite. Manufacturers often refuse to sell parts and tools to independent shops or consumers. They lock important components behind proprietary screws and industrial glues. This can significantly increase the cost of simple repairs and create long repair wait times.

A new pro-consumer bill, SB 983, introduced by State Senator Susan Eggman (D-Stockton) last week, aims to fix this broken repair system. The bill would require manufacturers to make parts, tools and service materials available to consumers and repair businesses to help you fix your stuff more easily and affordably. This would cover consumer electronics and appliances, ranging from cellphones and laptops to washers and dryers.

Manufacturers sometimes say consumers have plenty of repair options through the manufacturer’s authorized service provider programs. But if you’ve ever tried calling an authorized service provider to get a broken device or appliance fixed, you know the frustration of listening to hours of hold music before you get an actual person. Then they often recommend you send the device to them, making you wait days or even weeks until the device is back in your hands.

If this applies to you, know you are not alone. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has received many complaints about repair wait times from Apple product owners, from U.S. Marine officers concerned about military equipment, and from farmers trying to repair planting and harvesting equipment.

By keeping repairs to authorized repair centers, manufacturers retain a very lucrative monopoly on repair. They can set prices wherever they like, without competition. SB 983 would force manufacturers to compete on repair services with all the other qualified technicians in California, who are eager to help you get your computer or phone or game console up and running again. A CALPIRG report published last year found that the average American households could save $330 per year just by fixing reparable devices and appliances. With the free market competition driven by SB 983, these savings could be even higher.

Along with helping consumers, SB 983 would also prevent waste. If Americans held on to our phones one year longer on average, the emissions reductions would be equivalent to taking 636,000 cars off the road and would reduce manufacturing material demand by 42.5 million pounds per day. Thus by empowering more independent repair options, this could extend the lifespan of our stuff, reduce the material drain and pollution of manufacturing, and reduce the electronic waste heading to landfills.

Those reasons, along with people wanting to have control over their own stuff, have led to high support for Right to Repair across the ideological spectrum. According to new survey data from CALPIRG, a bipartisan majority of Californians support Right to Repair laws. Of respondents, 75% support the Right to Repair, including 77% of Democrats, 61% of Republicans and 82% of non-affiliated voters. Less than 6% of respondents oppose the Right to Repair.

The broad support for this issue has resulted in Right to Repair gaining momentum over the last year. President Joe Biden has come out to address “unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of item.” The FTC has said it will crack down on companies that restrict repair access, and just last month, four federal Right to Repair bills were introduced. This included a bipartisan House electronics bill and a Senate bill on farm equipment. There has also been modest but meaningful progress from companies like Apple and Microsoft to offer repair options.

Here in California, we have the opportunity to lead the way in the growing Right to Repair movement. If passed, SB 983 would be the furthest a state has gone to make repair more accessible to consumers. The bill now heads to the Senate Judiciary committee, where it will need to be approved before heading to the floor for a vote.

Let’s end manufacturer monopolies on the materials and knowledge we need to fix our stuff by passing SB 983. Call your State Senator today and urge them to support SB 983 and our right to repair. To look up your representative, visit here.

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