Farmers increasingly can't repair farm equipment without going back to their dealer

Why it’s hard to repair our stuff and how that could change in Illinois

My mom, a tailor and small business owner, fixes clothes so that it doesn’t need to be thrown away. This is possible because the tools for clothing repair are available to anyone and  there is little that clothing manufacturers can do to prevent independent repairs. Anybody with the will has the option to repair their clothes or to hire a tailor. This is not true in industries like consumer electronics, farm equipment, and life-saving medical devices. Customers are withheld the option to repair the things they own because the equipment is intentionally designed to be impossible to repair. 

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David J. Lee
Right to Repair Campaign Associate, Illinois PIRG

Author: David J. Lee

Right to Repair Campaign Associate, Illinois PIRG

Started on staff: 2021
B.A., cum laude, University of Illinois

David organizes with partners to advance the Right to Repair campaign in Illinois. The goal being to pass legislation that will stop companies from preventing consumers from fixing their own stuff. David lives in Champaign, Illinois, where he enjoys reading books and going on jogs.

My mom, a tailor and small business owner, fixes clothes so that it doesn’t need to be thrown away. This is possible because the tools for clothing repair are available to anyone and  there is little that clothing manufacturers can do to prevent independent repairs. Anybody with the will has the option to repair their clothes or to hire a tailor.

This is not true in industries like consumer electronics, farm equipment, and life-saving medical devices. Customers are withheld the option to repair the things they own because the equipment is intentionally designed to be impossible to repair. By making spare parts and diagnostic tools unavailable to owners, manufacturers maintain a monopoly on repair, and incentivize consumers to buy new products.

For example, a phone repair store’s business is directly impacted by the design whims of a few tech companies. Excessive use of glue, unnecessarily complicated screws, software locks, etc, can make it needlessly difficult or impossible for repair shops to fix your phone. This is by design so that consumers are forced to go through “licensed” repair stores or so that a new device needs to be bought altogether. This is harmful to consumers and to the environment as e-waste is responsible for 70 percent of the waste stream’s harmful and toxic environmental effects despite being only 2 percent of the world’s waste stream.

Farmers face a similar problem. Farmers cannot repair their own equipment and are forced to go to a company-licensed repair shop because the diagnostic software tools are not available to owners. Their equipment can end up collecting dust for sometimes as long as a month while they miss out on primetime for harvesting or planting seeds.

Likewise, some hospitals have to wait for ventilator manufacturers to repair their unused equipment rather than repair them in-house. “It’s not that it could mean life or death—it’s definitely life or death, especially during a pandemic,” says John Muir Health’s Nader Hammoud. This could be prevented if manufacturers made manuals, spare parts, and diagnostic tools available to the hospitals that own the equipment.

It is because of this reality that I am excited to be working for Illinois PIRG on the Right to Repair campaign. I am working to build support for the Digital Fair Repair Act (House Bill 3061) in the Illinois General Assembly, which will make equipment repair for consumers, farmers, and hospitals more affordable and foster a greater sense of ownership. It would be a big step in reducing toxic e-waste while also making repairability of the things we own be the norm. 

Fortunately, momentum is swinging towards the side of consumers on a statewide and national level giving us many reasons to be optimistic.

Part of this is due to tailwinds coming from the White House. The President signed an executive order to promote economic competition. Specifically, he called for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to prevent manufacturer policies that bar people from fixing equipment and devices. This makes it the first time a sitting President has brought Right to Repair to national attention as well as empowering agencies to take action. FTC action will need to be monitored but this is a great way to kick-off the process of changing the relationship between manufacturers and consumers.

Another reason to be optimistic is that Apple recently announced modest but meaningful policy changes in self repair for the iPhone 12 and 13. While Apple has been historically antagonistic towards Right to Repair, granting access to individuals to Apple genuine parts, manuals, and tools is a significant first step towards empowering customers.

Still, it is important for consumers to not ease up pressure on lawmakers and companies in furthering Right to Repair. Support from the White House is good but the momentum needs to be acted on to make change. Apple’s new policy is good but is only a shadow of what’s possible for the tech repair community and consumers.

My colleagues and I are gearing up for a committee hearing tomorrow in the Illinois House to convince lawmakers to prioritize the Digital Fair Repair Act this legislative session. We expect opposition from powerful manufacturers like Apple and Deere as they stand to lose money if consumers across the state are empowered to fix their own things.

We expect the manufacturing lobby to raise their usual arguments about Right to Repair, including cybersecurity, safety, and intellectual property, all of which have been debunked by the FTC, and in some ways by Apple, given their recent concessions on repair.

On our side, we’re excited about the pro-repair coalition we are building in Illinois, including consumer advocates, environmental organizations, repair shop owners, farmers and hospitals. Look for our diverse coalition to be on display later this week.  

My mom has been able to thrive as a small business owner because the clothing manufacturers cannot purposely design unfixable products. This is not true for many others as they go up against the manufacturers. We could use your help in passing this bill so that everybody in Illinois is better off.

To get involved in the legislative process and to let the committee know your two cents, we encourage you to submit witness slips here (be sure to select “Proponent”).

David J. Lee
Right to Repair Campaign Associate, Illinois PIRG

Author: David J. Lee

Right to Repair Campaign Associate, Illinois PIRG

Started on staff: 2021
B.A., cum laude, University of Illinois

David organizes with partners to advance the Right to Repair campaign in Illinois. The goal being to pass legislation that will stop companies from preventing consumers from fixing their own stuff. David lives in Champaign, Illinois, where he enjoys reading books and going on jogs.