Product lifecycle is the common thread in emerging Right to Repair and fashion waste legislation

By Cynthia Martens

Whether consumers are looking at coffeemakers, smartphones, jeans or shoes, many are rejecting planned obsolescence — the practice of designing products to either break or become obsolete in a short time frame — and showing a greater interest in repairs.

Consumer Reports, which champions "Right to Repair" legislation, has said that restricting access to basic diagnostic information and replacement parts for appliances and electronics forces consumers to rely on manufacturers or their approved servicers, inflating repair costs and, ultimately, pushing consumers to buy new products. California, New York, Colorado and Minnesota have enacted laws empowering consumers to repair appliances or electronic devices more easily, and at least 30 other states have introduced or passed "Right to Repair" bills. While these state laws vary in focus and typically contain carve-outs addressing trade secrets and intellectual property — and sometimes cars — the legislative momentum is clear.

The Right to Repair movement reflects a cultural zeitgeist that prioritizes responsible consumption across product categories. "I don't know how to measure how Right to Repair has engaged with sustainability, but it is clearly a core aspect of the campaign and has been since I started engaging on it," said Nathan Proctor, senior director, Campaign for the Right to Repair at the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), which launched its Right to Repair campaign in 2017.

The contemporaneous popularity of fashion resale — with growth in the secondhand apparel market reportedly outpacing that of the overall apparel market by 300 percent — and no-buy challenges, in which shoppers commit to making only necessary purchases for a specified period of time, are further evidence of consumer engagement with waste reduction. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, "[t]he main source of textiles in municipal solid waste (MSW) is discarded clothing."

On cue, EU legislators have cracked the whip: last March, members of Parliament at the European Union voted 514 to 20 to require the implementation of extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, targeting textile and food waste. European member states have 18 months from the date the directive enters into force to establish their EPR schemes and enforce the collection of used textiles — including clothing, blankets, bed linens, carpets and footwear — by January 1, 2025. In practice, this means any company that makes textiles available in the European Union must foot the bill for textile collection, sorting and recycling.

While the US-based PIRG has argued that discouraging repairs of home appliances and electronic devices incentivizes waste, European legislators have asserted that low-priced, low-quality fashion products fail to absorb environmental externalities in cost, driving consumers to purchase apparel and shoes in higher volumes, thereby contributing to waste. Case in point: every year, the European Union generates 12.6 million tons of textile waste, according to the European Commission, and of the total, 5.2 million tons stem from clothing and footwear, equivalent to about 26 pounds per person. "The way we produce and consume clothes is highly unsustainable," said Frans Timmermans, executive vice president for the European Green Deal, in a press statement.

France's lower house of Parliament recently passed a bill, Proposition de loi n°2268, "visant à démoder la mode éphémère grâce à un système de bonus-malus," or "aiming to make fast fashion go out of style through a system of incentives and penalties." In April, the French National Assembly approved the bill, which is widely expected to pass the Senate, albeit with some amendments. In its current form, the bill provides that fashion companies that introduce more than 1,000 products on the market in a day will be obliged to pay 20 percent more in EPR contributions or a maximum of €5 (about $5.40) per product.

Of course, government action against fast fashion must apply to both imported and domestic products, and some persuasively argue that the bill was drafted in a protectionist manner to single out imported goods. In explaining the need for the law, Antoine Vermorel-Marques, a conservative representative from the Loire region — which is home to Roanne, a commune known for textile production — framed cheap fashion as a form of unfair competition, taking to TikTok to mock the fashion "hauls" popularized by influencers. Critics counter that the French bill is a thinly veiled trade barrier to keep out cheap imports from Asia, as noted by China Daily, which cited experts who claim it is "contrary to the [World Trade Organization] principles of free competition and free trade."

But to the extent that discussions in France center on the flimsiness of materials used — and the difficulty or futility, perhaps, of repairing cheap textiles, which leads to greater waste — rather than on the cost of labor, the free trade argument is vulnerable. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) notes that "[a]s a country becomes more integrated within the world economy, its export sector becomes more exposed to environmental requirements imposed by leading importers. Changes needed to meet these requirements, in turn, flow backwards along the supply chain, stimulating the use of cleaner production processes and technologies."

As of November 2023, France has also incentivized the repair of textiles and shoes, with a government-backed "Reparation Bonus" of between €6 and €25 (approximately $6.50 to $27) available to consumers who take their products to repair shops.

When asked how the Reparation Bonus has affected demand for repairs, Refashion, a private nonprofit company that counts upwards of 6,500 members, is approved by the public authorities and is financed by the French EPR supply chain for apparel, home linens and consumer footwear, shared a report documenting its progress. Of note, 250,000 items were repaired across France by the six-month anniversary of the bonus, and the number of participating artisans jumped from 500 to 1,040. Specifically, 84 percent of repairs took place at shoemakers and the remainder at tailoring shops.

Elsa Chassagnette, director of Refashion's repair fund, said in a press statement that Refashion aims to increase the awareness of individual consumers of their ability to reduce the environmental impact of clothing and shoes. "Once that awareness is there, there are new habits to acquire, and that can take time," she said.

The United States has seen a dramatic decline in the demand for shoe repair over the last century, according to the Shoe Service Institute of America (SSIA), a trade association founded in 1904. "During World War II, when shoe repair was at its peak due to rationing of leather and rubber products, there were more than 100,000 shoe repair shops in the United States. Now, there are between 3,000 and 3,500," said Mitch Lebovic, an SSIA representative.

War rationing aside, Lebovic attributed the gradual drop in demand for repairs to a series of interrelated challenges: the demise of domestic shoe manufacturing, difficulty finding and training qualified repairers, the popularity of athletic shoes — which are harder to repair than leather-soled shoes — and changes in the materials commonly used to make shoes. "While there is still high-quality footwear manufactured in the United States and abroad, the use of inexpensive, lesser-quality materials in shoe manufacturing hurt the shoe repair industry," he said, adding that "when the replacement cost is less than the cost to repair, the consumer will not choose repair."

Lebovic estimated that high-quality, well-maintained men's shoes can be resoled seven to 10 times at a fraction of the cost of new shoes. "With new soles and heels, and reconditioned uppers, the shoes will look like new, yet retain that broken-in, comfortable feel. It is not uncommon for a man to get 30 years out of a good pair of shoes. Quality women's shoes can be resoled three to five times," he said. And while athletic shoes pose some challenges, Lebovic said adhesive manufacturers have "done a good job of keeping up with materials used to manufacture shoes" and that many types of shoes are repairable.

Despite this, SSIA members have noticed that "most manufacturers are not interested in partnering with us to promote their shoes as repairable," said Lebovic, although some "do offer shoe repair services."

"We have figured out ways to manufacture things more cheaply, and there are definitely a lot of costs to what is done to make that possible — in electronics, those costs are often seen as electronic waste and mineral extraction, whereas fast fashion has other leading harms," said Proctor of PIRG. "But the solution is the same. Make quality, lasting products. Fix and mend them. Care for them. Reduce, reuse and recycle."

T-shirts may not come with warranties, but given the legislative success of the Right to Repair movement in the United States and the effort to curb textile waste in Europe, manufacturers of consumer goods in both jurisdictions should track future legal developments closely.

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