In the Circular Economy, ‘Repairs’ Are Making a Comeback

Aug 10, 2023 | News

By: Michael McQueen

In an economy often characterised by overconsumption, waste and fast fashion, the push for sustainability is not always popular.

Particularly with some companies building their business models around planned obsolescence, the idea of developing durable, reusable and recyclable products – an ethos which we often associate with generations of the past – can seem to war against the interests of profits.

In an effort to cut waste and reduce pollution, France is introducing a new scheme which pays people to repair their clothing. While fast fashion has encouraged a kind of consumerism that buys new and throws out old in a rapid cycle, this government move incentivises a circular economy. Depending on the repair, consumers can receive subsidies ranging from 6 to 25 euros. With the textile industry accounting for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions and coming in second among the most polluting industries, the move represents a genuine commitment to ecological goals of economic interests.[1]

Repairability Scores

This initiative follows several others that have been adopted in France in efforts to combat waste and overconsumption. In 2021, the country introduced regulations introduced which required that tech companies publicise the repairability scores of their products, exposing the planned obsolescence systems in place within the companies. Under this regulation, titled the French Repairability Index, manufacturers must publish the scores next to the prices of various electronics and appliances. Scores are determined according to five categories, including disassembly capabilities, repair documentation availability, spare part availability, spare part price and a product-specific category. Unfortunately, the tech giants Apple and Microsoft yielded dismal scores[2].

“Repair cafes exist throughout Europe, where volunteers service and repair the white goods of locals for free on a monthly basis.”

The country plans to replace this Repairability Index with a Durability Index, where manufacturers will be required to continuing providing this repair information while also explaining the product lifecycle for each item.[3] Such moves in France have encouraged the ongoing operation of ‘repair cafes’, which exist throughout Europe, where volunteers service and repair the white goods of locals for free on a monthly basis.[4]

E-Waste is Contaminating the World

Considering the figures surrounding e-waste, these initiatives are undoubtedly the way we will need to go in the future if we have any intention of keeping our societies running.  Only 17.4% of e-waste was recycled in 2019 according to the UN. The rest of the world’s electronic leftovers, which in the same year weighed more than the Great Wall of China, ended up in dumps.[5] Far from the countries which are the culprits of most e-waste, these dumps are generally located in poorer nations where unusable electronic goods are illegally shipped. Here, the products leak out toxic materials, contaminate water and food supplies, and waste the highly valuable metals contained inside.[6]

“Rhe revival of ‘old-school’ notions of repairing rather than disposing of them has been embraced by some of the most-loved companies.”

The push towards a circular economy and the revival of ‘old-school’ notions of repairing broken items rather than disposing of them has been embraced by some of the most-loved companies. Iconic toy brand Lego have begun making its plastic bricks out of recycled bottles and has committed to making all of its core products from sustainable materials by 2030. Considering the company churns out between 110 and 120 billion plastic pieces per year, this move towards using recycled materials could make a sizable difference.[7]

LEGO’s sustainability efforts don’t end there. In recent years, LEGO has successfully run a program which encourages people to send in their unwanted LEGO so that it can be donated to children’s non-profits. The program, called Replay, accepts donations and goes on to clean, inspect and sort them so that the Lego can be passed on people and organisations who can give them a second life.[8]

Recycled Lego

Lego CEO Tim Brooks stated in relation to the program, ‘We know people don’t throw out Lego bricks’. According to Brooks, Lego’s products have always been designed to last several generations, and its new recycled plastic bricks will be no different. The company continues to emphasise products that are durable rather than biodegradable – an ethos which opposes trends like fast fashion. Instead of building products that are cheap, breakable and destined for landfill, Lego hopes to continue creating products that can be used and inherited for generations.

In both the legislative and commercial context, much of this urgency around sustainability has been driven by market demand with over half (57%) of consumers saying they are willing to change their shopping habits “to help reduce negative environmental impact,” according to a study from the National Retail Federation.[9]

Sustainability is increasingly becoming a non-negotiable in the eyes of consumers – especially as Millennials and Gen Zs become a dominant part of the consumer marketplace. Research indicates that 73% of younger consumers are willing to pay more for sustainably sourced products – a number that will only increase in the coming years.[10]

Gone are the days of ecological interests existing at odds with economic goals. With consumer priorities having shifted so significantly and governments now making moves to incentivise and legislate durability and quality, environmental and financial sustainability go hand in hand.