Right to Repair is overdue - and consumers are already leading the charge

Legislation providing a right to repair electronic and electrical goods is long overdue in the UK, but lockdown trends have already accelerated consumer interest, writes CDSL CEO Andrew Sharp

The government's announcement of 'Right to Repair' legislation last month has been heralded in many quarters as a watershed moment for the circular economy. Right to Repair opens the door for a world where the shelf life of electrical goods is no longer determined by manufacturers, and consumers have the right to both save money and do their bit to tackle the issue of e-waste.

The reality is that this legislation is well overdue. The UK has been a world-leader in producing e-waste for a long time, but the issue has drifted under the legislative radar and failed to capture the attention of lawmakers in the same way that single-use plastics and carbon emissions have over the past decade.

The UN said in 2019 that the average person in Britain discards more electrical items each year than anywhere else in the world, other than Norway. The same report found that the UK generated 1.6 million tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) - equivalent to six Wembley Stadiums - one of the highest total figures in Europe.

In addition to these frightening statistics, the UK is also the worst offender in Europe for illegally exporting toxic electronic waste to developing countries. This is actually serving to limit the UK's electrical waste statistics, which are already sky high.

The plan to enshrine consumers' Right to Repair electrical products in law is undoubtedly a welcome step in the right direction. As the government pushes its green credentials in the run up to COP26 this year, we expect the policy to be touted as an example of the UK's world-leading status on sustainability matters. It also comes at an opportune moment, as despite the UK's poor record on electrical waste, when it comes to driving sustainable practices, consumers have already started leading the charge.

Over the past year, the burgeoning repair movement and a 'Fix-It-Yourself' attitude have gathered steam. Lockdowns and domestic isolation have encouraged people to take a more hands-on approach around the home and consumers are taking to electrical repairs in droves.

From the very first lockdown, we saw record traffic on our consumer brand eSpares, which was sustained right through 2020, with our biggest ever day of sales coming at the end of December. With more time on our hands and stuck indoors, many have turned to the internet for guidance on DIY. Step-by-step video repair tutorials are now available to help solve pretty much anything that could go wrong around the home, and that was reflected in a 34 per cent increase in visits to our own YouTube channel last year.

We recently conducted a survey of 5,000 people and the results also clearly highlight a growing interest among young people for repairing and recycling their electrical goods. The responses suggest that three times more young people than over-65s would try to fix a broken appliance at home, and that the environmentally conscious under-35s are increasingly keen to fix gadgets rather than throw them away.

The potential of this consumer action cannot be underestimated. While the WEEE Forum estimates that only 17.4 per cent of e-waste last year was recycled, if consumers repaired or recycled just 10 per cent more easily repairable appliances in the UK, approximately 160,000 tonnes of e-waste would be avoided, WEEE figures indicate.

The power to tackle the e-waste issue therefore sits in consumer rather than government hands. Rather than wait for the rules to come into force, consumers can, and already are, driving the positive change they want to see.

When the Right to Repair rules come into force, the onus will fall on manufacturers and businesses to meet the standards on product repairability. But businesses should view this impending legislation as an opportunity and not a penalty.

Consumer attitudes are moving in one direction on sustainability, and stringent policies on product recyclability make commercial sense in the longer term. In 2020, Deloitte found 43 per cent of consumers were already actively choosing brands due to their environmental values, while two-thirds of consumers have reduced their usage of single-use plastics. In direct-to-consumer sectors like the one in which we operate, sustainability credentials are fast becoming a purchasing priority alongside price.

By acting now, businesses stand themselves in good stead to make the most of impending legislation and changing consumer attitudes. We warmly welcome the government's decision to enshrine the Right to Repair in electrical products, but encouragingly, consumers are already stepping up.

Andrew Sharp ia CEO at electronic spare parts retailer CDSL.