B Lab & Finding Humanity Podcast — Episode 3: The Right to Repair

How to make our digital lives more sustainable, by fighting planned obsolescence, e-waste, and more.
By B Lab Global
February 1, 2022

Replacing your smartphone every two and a half years is not uncommon. In fact, it’s by design. The consumer electronics industry is fraught with unethical business practices, from planned obsolescence, to the dark side of cobalt mining, to the 40 million tons of electronic waste that's generated each year. In this episode, we learn about Fairphone, a social enterprise that creates smartphones which are both repairable and built to last. We also share how the circular economy and “Right to Repair” movement is a win for consumers, companies, and the planet.

Featured guests include: 

  • Nathan Proctor - Senior Director of Right to Repair campaigns, U.S. Public Interest Research Group 

  • Joe Iles - Circular Design Programme Lead, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

  • Eva Gouwens - CEO, Fairphone

  • Juan Pablo Larenas - Co-founder of Sistema B and former Executive Director, B Lab Global

Listen at findinghumanitypodcast.com, or wherever you stream your podcasts.

TRANSCRIPT: Episode Three — The Right to Repair

Nathan: If Americans use their cell phones for one year longer, on average, it would have the same benefits to the climate as taking 636,000 cars off the road. 

Hazami Barmada, host, Finding Humanity podcast: Depending on the type and model, the average lifespan of a modern smartphone is designed by manufacturers to be about 2 and a half years. This estimate includes general care and protection. Without it, the lifespan could be lower, which is around 15 months in many cases.

Joe: Our economy currently works on this model of take, make, and waste. 

The concept of designing products that are meant to fail prematurely or become out-of-date is called planned obsolescence.

Eva: We are told that the latest and greatest device "Oh it's just around the corner." But the strange thing is it's not real innovation you could say. It's more incremental innovation, but quite often it doesn't completely change our experience with the device. 

Hazami: Can businesses help solve the greatest societal challenges we face? You’re listening to a Finding Humanity special series with B Lab, the nonprofit behind the B Corp movement. B Lab is transforming the global economy to benefit all people, communities, and the planet. In this series, we will explore how businesses can step up to shape a future that benefits us all.

I’m your host Hazami Barmada.

Joe Iles, Circular Design Program Lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: You can look back to moments in history and one that is quite well known is the decision in 1924 between the major light bulb companies of the time to limit the lifespan of their product, light bulbs, to 1000 hours. They were technically capable of lasting far longer than that, but the decision was made not to safeguard the future of that industry to intentionally reduce the lifespan of that product so customers would have to buy another one. 

Hazami: That’s Joe Iles, the circular design program lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The organization was founded by Ellen MacArthur, who broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005.

Joe: During that voyage you take with you exactly what you need and you manage your resources because you know that they’re finite. And when she stepped off the boat to the finish line after sailing around the world, she connected that with the way that we use resources in our economy. 

Hazami: As Joe shares, businesses have traditionally operated under a different assumption: That resources are infinitely available.

Joe: Business leaders and people didn't really need to think about where materials came from, where energy comes from because they both seem abundant, never going to run out and not having to worry about where we put stuff when we don't want to think about it anymore or don't need it anymore — that business model, I can see how it kind of stacks up, but now we know that those factors are not true. 

Hazami: What Joe describes is the foundation of a linear economy, in which companies extract materials in order to manufacture and sell products to consumers, who in turn use and then discard them. This is especially true of electronics.

Eva: The smartphone industry every year worldwide — 1.4 billion smartphones are sold. Even a bit more are produced actually. 

Hazami: That’s Eva Gouwens, CEO of Dutch smartphone company and Certified B Corp, Fairphone. Since 2013, Fairphone has been developing and selling sustainable smartphones.

Eva Gouwens, CEO, Fairphone: And we use them on average, for example, in Europe, around 26 months. So it's a bit more than two years. And after that time, only 15 percent of the smartphones are handed in for proper recycling. So if you combine these numbers, that's a bit more than two years, every two years, 85 percent of this 1.4 billion smartphones actually are waste. It’s one big waste machine. And this short term attitude of just “I take something, I make something and then I dispose it again,” doesn't only influence the materials in smartphones and the materials we use, but also it effects, or it has a negative effect on the people working in the supply chains. 

Hazami: Unlike major smartphone brands in the market, Fairphone has designed phones that are highly repairable.

Eva: What we do at Fairphone is that we developed a device that is modular, and that means that it's a bit similar to Lego bricks. It's actually seven modules stacked together as one smartphone. And the moment that, for example, your screen is broken because you dropped it or your battery runs out very quickly, then you can just replace your battery. Or you can just unscrew the display from your device, buy a new one in our web shop and replace it yourself easily at home.

Hazami: Additionally, Fairphone’s theory of change involves a three step approach.

Eva: On one hand, we raise awareness and we uncover, and research the supply chains behind our phones. The second step is that we innovate on solutions to these malpractices and actually show that it is possible to, on one hand, make ethical choices in your business and supply chain. But on the other hand, be commercially successful. And that is actually quite key for the third step because we want to create, as we say, followers or at least start partnerships with other parties that join in on the solutions that we've established. 

Hazami: Starting with commercialization of light bulbs in the 1870s, the electronics industry has turned away from ethical design and manufacturing of products.

Nathan, Senior Right to Repair Campaigns Director, US Public Interest Research Group: There's really two environmental problems when it comes to electronics. Two major ones. The first is the extraction and manufacturing. And that really is the most significant problem. 

Hazami: That’s Nathan Proctor, Senior Right to Repair Campaigns Director at the US Public Interest Research Group. 

Nathan: When you like, have to mine the rare Earth, you know, the metals and smelt them and turn them into these tiny, tiny components and then assemble them and ship them across the ocean, that process involves a lot of emissions. And some of these extractive industries are creating some of the worst pollution in the history of the world. I mean, there is a lake in Mongolia, which is both radioactive and acidic. I mean, it's a lake of radioactive acid sludge. And it's a byproduct of some of the rare earth materials sourcing that is necessary for smartphones and their chips and memory. 

Hazami: Cobalt, for example, is an essential raw material used for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. These in turn power electric cars, laptops, and smartphones. The dark side of cobalt mining is an example of an unethical practice within the electronics industry.

Nathan: We know that cobalt mining is often associated with, you know, kind of conflict areas like in the DRC and that there's children involved in the mining of cobalt. 

Hazami: The Democratic Republic of Congo or the DRC has an estimated 3.4 million metric tons of cobalt, or about two thirds of the world’s supply.  

Eva: Actually, Fairphone started in 2010 already as an awareness campaign to raise awareness around conflict minerals in consumer electronics and actually around also the wars that the mining of these materials actually is fueling and in specifically in the DRC, in Congo.

Hazami: The supply chain of cobalt from the DRC is tainted by the blood and hardships of forced slavery, corruption and human rights abuses. Currently, it is estimated that 40,000 children --some as young as three years old-- are obligated to work under harsh conditions making less than $2 a day.

Furthermore, a recent study found a strong link between people who worked with mining chemicals and fetal abnormalities and birth defects in their children.

And the demand for electronics that use lithium-ion batteries is growing.

Nathan: And then of course, you have the end of life issues. 

Hazami: That’s Nathan again. Nathan says that our devices are unnecessarily made to be disposable, which in turn produces unfathomable waste.

Nathan: 70 percent of the toxic heavy metals we're putting in the landfill come from our electronics. There's a lot of toxic chemicals that are involved in making electronics. You know, bromated flame retardants you spray on the components as a flame retardant. There's heavy metals like mercury and lead basically about 80 percent or so or more of our electronics doesn't end up getting recycled. And even the stuff that does get recycled, most of it by weight is being shredded. And so all that has to end up in landfills. 

Nathan: Very small percentage of it gets reused in any way. Those chemicals can leach out of of our waste systems into the water, you know, are associated with all kinds of public health effects like cancer and lung disease.

Hazami: This issue is exacerbated by what’s called planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is the policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life or a purposely frail design, so that it eventually becomes obsolete. This proactively guarantees that consumers will need to replace their products, thus bolstering demand.

When it comes to the issue of planned obsolescence, manufacturers have an argument for their business model.

Joe: The manufacturers will argue that in order to provide a good and reliable service for their customers, they need to innovate, they need to provide the latest products, they need to move on from prior software iterations so that the latest versions could provide the best service and the most secure service around data and keeping users safe in the electronics world, for example. 

Hazami: But Nathan, Senior Right to Repair Campaigns Director, says that the innovation argument is no longer justified.

Nathan: The difference between that first iPhone and the iPhone 4 was like astronomical, that phones were like a million times faster and easier to use. And the apps are so much better, the visuals are so much better. But the difference between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 13 — there's not that much difference between these phones. So like, why can't they make a phone that'll last 10 years if the products are not that much different after 10 years? And the truth is, they just love the product churn life cycle that we're on because it's unbelievably profitable. They're trying to protect it even when it's not a natural consequence of the innovation cycle, like, you know, their new phone that they kind of have a big reveal event for every six months is basically the last phone, with like a slightly improved camera or some new kind of funny emoji face thing that you know we're supposed to get all hyped up about. But really, the technology has been unchanged. 

Hazami: In order to lock in profits, Nathan emphasizes how companies like Apple want consumers to replace their devices faster. The principle that corporations should prioritize profits, without regard for its impact on society or the environment, is antithetical to how Certified B Corps like Fairphone operate.

Nathan: So we had these little Nokia brick phones that, you know, the battery lasted like two weeks. And you could take it out and replace it if you had to go on a long trip or something, you weren't sure you'd have a charger, you could just take it out. And if you went back and told somebody, you know, in 2001, “You know, cell phones — the technology is going to get so amazing, they're going to have GPS. They're going to be able to play music, they're going to do all this stuf. But you're going to replace it every two years. You're going to pay a thousand bucks for it and they're going to glue the battery in.” You would just be like, ‘why would anyone put up with that? Why would anyone put up with a $1000 piece of electronics that you glue the battery? And that's the first thing that I would think that you could replace. Like, how do they how could they have gotten away with that?” 

Hazami: Whether it’s an irreplaceable battery or a software update that slows down your phone, Eva of Fairphone says that companies deliberately develop products in a way that it would be easier to buy a new device than it is to keep one. 

Worldwide around 40 million tons of electronic waste is generated every year. Around 150 million smart phones are thrown away each year in the US alone-- that’s about 416,000 mobile phones thrown away every single day. 

This is an issue that brands like Fairphone were built to tackle.

Eva: The way we designed the device is to make it easy, but also therefore quite cheap or with low costs to repair the device. Most of the smartphones and the design of the smartphones is not geared with the requirement to be highly repairable.

Eva: Actually, most of the time, the paradigm is “it should be thin,” because we're all educated like the thinner the more beautiful. And if you want to have the thinnest device, then you can better all stick it together, glue it and design it not to be opened. 

Hazami: Globally, the right to repair movement has put pressure on manufacturers, in order to give consumers the right to repair their own devices.

Nathan: So what Right to Repair is trying to do is trying to end that kind of system of electronics maintenance. We want people to have the tools and the resources to fix stuff so they don't need to replace it so that people can get low cost electronics in the second or third user markets. But to do that, we need manufacturers to give access to the resources necessary to repair things, which is parts, tools, service information and software tools. So that's what our model reforms are asking for, and that's what we're campaigning to get. 

Hazami: Can you talk to us a little bit about the right to repair legislation? What are some important aspects of this legislation and these laws that our listeners should know about and how successful has pushing for these laws been? 

Nathan: Yeah so, the law, model template law, was kind of originally inspired by something that the auto industry has kind of done, which is, you know, in car repair, right? You have independent local mechanics and they're a huge part of car repair marketplace. But they were starting to get locked out of the modern electronic systems in cars. That basically, you know, your anti lock brakes would go out, and the only possible way to get any service on that would be to go to the dealership when they would charge you like three times as much and so to fight back against that, the independent right to repair folks put together a ballot measure in Massachusetts, which would require that the manufacturers would share all the resources that they give to the dealerships to independent mechanics, and Massachusetts voters approved that first right to repair measure. 86 percent to 14 percent on the ballot in the fall of 2012, which, by the way, is a higher percentage of Massachusetts voters than actually have cars. And as a result, like there is now a system of information sharing, so mechanics can get what they need. And so I think quickly other folks in the electronics world said that's exactly what we need for our industry. And so the first electronics right to repair bill was, you know, slightly adjusted version of that framework. And that is really developed over the last nine years into something where we have a tremendous amount of interest and engagement on the policy, right? But that's the basic framework.

Hazami: Nathan says that the Right to Repair movement started from the bottom up, driven by conversations amongst tinkerers, local repair shops, and the DIY community. 

Nathan: This work was, in the early days, was kind of being driven by iFixit, which is the kind of Wikipedia for repair guys, for tens of thousands of different products made by that kind of open source community. Repair.org, which is a trade association of repair shops. And so they were introducing this legislation, and they went from having two states in 2014 to six states in 2016 and then 20 states and now twenty seven states. So it's just kind of gotten bigger and bigger and bigger because people realize that this is a really important conversation, and we started building more and more and more people into it. And then over the course of the last two years, it's really entered into the national stage. 

Hazami: In July 2021, as part of a broader push for competition in the U.S. economy,  President Joe Biden directed the Federal Trade Commission to craft new Right to Repair regulations.

Hazami: And we're seeing that this also had an international uptick where the European Union is also introducing some legislation. Can you speak to kind of a global movement around Right to Repair? 

Nathan: I mean, this campaign has kind of struck a nerve. And for different people, it kind of touches on different things, right? So the European Union has long been trying to pursue what they call the ECO-DESIGN directive like, how do we design products so that they are more sustainable from the design perspective, which is hopefully an outcome of of improving access to repair materials as it increases the expectation of repair and the kind of accountability about repairability. But it's not explicit. Whereas in the European Union, it's way more explicitly about design. And so they're kind of going product area by product area and kind of improving repairability design requirements, as well as mandating certain kinds of infrastructure to support repair after products are deployed. And they have rules which are fully in place for certain kinds of kitchen appliances and televisions. So like dishwashers, washing machines, refrigerators, televisions and other kinds of large appliances. Companies have to provide access to the service materials to professional repairers. And they also have to make spare parts available for seven years. 

Hazami: When it comes to disrupting industries that have operated under the same principles for centuries, cooperation from various stakeholders is key.

Juan Pablo: As you can see, legislation policy helps to build a cultural change. 

Hazami: That’s Juan Pablo Larenas, Executive Director of B Lab Global and Co-Founder of Sistema B.

Hazami: We're seeing the right to repair movement has advanced quite a bit in Europe and the United States. Why do you think Latin America hasn't caught up? 

Juan Pablo: When you have consumers that are more engaged and more concerned with the climate crisis, more concerned with overconsumption businesses change their own paradigms. And in Latin America, according to some statistics, the responsible consumers are, in terms of percentage are fewer than in the northern hemisphere. And also, this is because of the purchasing power parity. So one of the challenges we have is to demonstrate that being a responsible consumer is not more expensive. 

Hazami: In an effort to combat throwaway culture and electronic waste, France adopted its comprehensive Anti-Waste law in 2020. The law aims to eliminate waste and pollution from the design stage. Its policy measures intend to transform the system of production, distribution, and consumption from a linear to a circular economic model. 

I asked Joe of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to define a circular economy and how it works in practice.

Joe: The circular economy, we define as a systems solution framework that helps us tackle global challenges like climate change biodiversity loss, waste pollution, and we say that it's driven by three principles. Eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials at their highest value, and regenerate nature.

Joe: So by eliminating waste and pollution, we’re talking about going upstream, stopping waste from being created in the first place rather than having to deal with it after it's been created. So rather than assuming that waste is inevitable, can we eliminate it at source. Keeping products of materials in use and circulating them — that says rather than taking this laptop and smashing it to pieces to just get the materials back? Could we preserve the integrity of that product? Could we repair it? 

Joe: And then regenerating nature — that's about putting back more than you take out. So, so often we treat our natural systems the same way we treat mines. We extract value and don't think about the potential of that system to provide what we need into the 

Hazami: The question that I have is who's responsible for building it? 

Joe: Well, the transition to a circular economy is systemic in nature. It will require interventions from all different areas of the economy and society. At the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. We really focus on industry level change, so we do a lot of work in plastics, fashion and food. And we believe that the major industry players, the people responsible for creating and sustaining the system as it stands today are a really big part of the solution as well so they have the capacity to drive our plastic system, our fashion system, food system towards a more circular outcome. Governments play a really important role as well, and the collaboration between the public and private sector will be will be super important with setting policy measures that enable circular innovations to reach that potential to have the impact that we see many businesses are trying to have with the things they create and to make it easier to operate as a more circular business. 

Hazami: Unethical business practices that place profit over purpose have caused tremendous damage to people and our planet.

Juan Pablo: As you can see all these problems are not only environmental problems, they are social problems. Without social justice, you cannot have climate justice and the opposite, right? So they are all interconnected. And in general, businesses move faster than policy. So that's why it's so important to have businesses moving fast and changing paradigms. 

Hazami: But for businesses that believe a more ethical electronics industry is possible, the journey could be challenging.

Eva: I think most of it comes down to the fact that we are a small player in a huge industry, literally dominated by a few of the biggest players, the biggest companies worldwide. 

Eva: That is a challenge. Yet how do we tackle it? 

Hazami: Here Nathan shares what incentivizes industry giants to preserve the status quo.

Nathan: Some of it, it's about monopolization and some of it, it's just about they just want to make disposable technology, and they don't want to worry about anybody trying to fix it.

Hazami: In perhaps one of the most profound victories for the Right to Repair movement, Apple announced the “Self Service Repair” program in November 2021. This is a huge win, since Apple has been known as an advocate for planned obsolescence. The program will give customers access to genuine Apple parts and tools to repair their phones, and will first roll out with the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 models.

In response to this news from Apple, Nathan told the New York Times that, “It’s a win for repair shops, it’s a win for consumers, and it’s a win for the planet.” 

Juan Pablo: When we talk about the new economy, we're talking about an economy that moves from sole competition to collaboration, that moves from inequality to equity. An economy that has more solidarity. 

Hazami: And when we're looking at the new economy, you know, you're talking about inclusive, equitable, regenerative systems. But what does that actually look like? 

Juan Pablo: It looks like a system in which citizens can flourish, in which we are really aware of the consequences of not being a responsible business, a system in which people have access to the right products and services they need to live properly. And most importantly, it looks like a business in which we are super aware not only of our rights, but most importantly of our responsibilities.

Hazami: It is this obligation to do good for the people and the planet that drives companies like Fairphone to keep pushing for positive change.

Eva: If you really think it through, it is ridiculous that you're allowed to just take materials and use it for a while, dump it to waste, and no one bothers about it because and it's fine that you just keep all the profits. If I try to explain to my children, they immediately say, “Hey, it's unfair, right, it's not possible.” And therefore I think the next generations, they won't accept this anymore. because next generations for sure will say this is ridiculous and this is not how we're gonna do this in the future. At least that's what I hope for. 

Hazami: If you'd like to hear more empowering stories from Finding Humanity or to learn more about this episode, visit our website at www.findinghumanitypodcast.com. Please subscribe, rate, and review the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Your ratings and reviews help Finding Humanity reach new audiences, so we thank you for your support.

For more opportunities to engage with us, follow us on social media and subscribe to our newsletter! 

In our podcast, we cover pressing — and at times controversial — social and political issues. The views and opinions expressed are those of the interviewees and do not reflect the positions or opinions of the producers or any affiliated organizations.

Finding Humanity is a joint production of the Humanity Lab Foundation and Hueman Group Media, this series is produced in collaboration with B Lab. For this episode, we’d like to thank Hannah Munger and Rachel Sarnoff. To learn more about B Lab and the B Corp movement, visit bcorporation.net.

Our Co-Executive Producers are Camille  and Hazami Barmada, Associate Producers are Fernanda Uriegas and Tanny Jiraprapasuke, Policy and Background Research by Karolina Mendecka and Tanny Jiraprapasuke. Mixing, editing, and music by Maverick Aquino.

For this episode, I’d like to thank Eva Gouwens, Nathan Proctor, Joe Iles and Juan Pablo Larenas.

I’m your host, Hazami Barmada. Thanks for listening. And I look forward to catching you in the next episode!

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