Innovation That Matters

Fight to repair: part two

Features

Jude discusses the barriers to change when it comes to circularity within organisations

In this series, we are taking a deep dive into repairability with creative technologist Jude Pullen. In part one, Jude explained his approach to helping companies solve the problems they are ‘fearful’ of and how he defines circularity. If you haven’t done so already, we recommend reading that article first.

This whole investigation began when Jude tried to fix a pair of his headphones. Using this as a jumping-off point, we go into the nuts and bolts (or rather the screws and circuits) of repairability.

A pair of broken headphones

I began by asking Jude to explain how difficult it was to repair the headphones, and what his ultimate fix was:

As a chartered engineer, I had all kinds of tools like security screwdrivers at my disposal, and I still found it difficult to diagnose the problem and repair them. My hypothesis was that the battery was the root cause, but actually it was the battery charging circuit that was the problem, and that was much harder to diagnose because, unsurprisingly, companies don’t just publish schematics or a diagnostic strategy on how to repair things. Maybe they should, but I think that is tempered by the fact that you would have to be qualified and confident to go poking around with multimeters on a circuit. Even if it’s not mains voltage, you could do more harm than good if you’re not able to intelligently engage with it.

To fix the headphones I ended up doing what I’d call a ‘heart bypass surgery’ equivalent in circuitry. I got a third-party charging-discharging circuit board called a TP4056, and I basically re-wired that into the headphones, which allowed me to get it working again. For kicks, I added a MagSafe-style connector so I didn’t have to plug it in with any faff, and I also added a slightly larger capacity battery just from finding a better specification and size.

Fixing the headphones sounds like a fun afternoon of tinkering for Jude. But what is the wider significance of his findings?

It was quite painful actually – having to look at the facts of how much the current landscape does not facilitate repairs. Just one LiPo battery website has over 5,000 different types, mostly with only small differences with each other.

I went on to research several of the heavyweights in this category (noise cancellation headphones) and none of them fared much better for repairability, which underscores the point that these things are not designed to be user-serviceable. More broadly, with respect to the current Right to Repair legislation, I would go as far as to say that I don’t think some consumer electronics were even designed to be serviceable by an experienced service engineer. I think that’s the provocation. Under the legislation, the first notion is that the user should be able to repair a product, and, if not, a capable repair shop should be able to. The latter part is a bit of a grey area, as it doesn’t overtly state how easy or how cheap that process should be. Currently, there is notional advice that it needs to be sensible. Let’s say you buy a smartphone for £1,000. It would be prohibitive if the replacement screen cost £200, but the repair was so complex that the labour cost was £500. However, I think legislators could do with being a little more balanced about outlining what constitutes a ‘fair’ repair. It needs to be fair on time, fair on cost, and fair on the network availability of the parts et cetera. Otherwise, people will give up and buy a new one.

On the other hand, legislation can’t write an overview for every single product, so, in some cases, it may fall to consumers to actively seek out non-mandatory third-party endorsements, such as B-Corp, Which?, or some other stamp of ‘eco-legitimacy’. ‘Circular legislation’ will be tricky, but I still think it’s essential, especially for larger items like cars, or items that are regulated, like medical products. Perhaps these types of product are where new legislation might realistically begin, and, hopefully, the rest will evolve in time.

After pulling on this thread, Jude decided to visit a large recycling facility to get a sense of the scale of e-waste. I asked him what impressions that left on him:

It’s a weird thing to say, but I think it was one of the best field trips any credible company could do. I mustn’t name names, but it’s reassuring to hear that some big names have sent a small busload of their designers, engineers, and marketeers to also do what I did and go and check it out, be a ‘sponge’, and ask questions.

It’s one thing to read in a book that there’s X million tonnes of whatever waste produced per year, but it’s another thing to literally stand by a huge pile of it and be told that it’s probably a week’s worth of stuff and that it will soon be replaced by another pile the same size. And when I say ‘pile’, I mean towering fifteen-metre piles – colossal amounts of stuff!

Seeing mountainous piles of waste leaves a visceral impression of the scale of the problem. But what were the more practical takeaways Jude came away with?

One of the biggest takeaways I took from the trip was the impact of bad design and the strain it puts on the system, and conversely, how good design makes it easier to segregate materials and reclaim precious things. But also, when you look at it through the circularity ‘lens’, there is a vast money-making opportunity in optimising this circular economics. I don’t believe that telling people that they ‘should be more sustainable’ or ‘be more environmental’ has much impact a lot of the time. But telling people that they can make a lot of money and that business models are shifting does. I’m hardly giving away the secret sauce of how I operate with companies by telling you that if I’m working with any companies on sustainability at the moment, it’s actually proving to them how lucrative it is to get this right. What really opens peoples’ eyes is moving them from a begrudging, ‘I don’t want to do my homework’ feeling to ‘you’re telling me we can do this, and we’d make a tonne of money and crush the competition?’ Telling them they could have different models, different strategies, and different opportunities, is where you get the excitement of the room.

Being equipped with those examples, case studies, and inspiration, and having the ability to drill into a company’s own data to find the opportunity, or indeed the ‘fear’ and the ‘threat’ of where this is going to bite you if you don’t act, makes it a win-win. You’re managing fear and then showing money-making opportunities – for good.

Even when equipped with powerful case studies, Jude must often contend with push-back from the corporates he works with. I asked him where he thinks this resistance comes from:

I come back to this point of ‘finding the fear’. The fear of the unknown is problematic, and the reason why that fear is unsettling is because most peoples’ jobs are tasked with the here and now – they’re tasked with hitting KPIs this year, next year, maybe the year after that, at most. But a lot of circularity requires some very top-down, heavy commitment from leadership to say that this is not a ‘quick press of a button – and we’re set for next year’ kind of situation. There’s a long roadmap of incremental, systematic, and quite profound change to a company’s philosophy – be it design, be it marketing, be it its entire mandate for existing.

So how does Jude get people to change their mind?

What’s exciting is having a company that has the time to do that sort of introspection full circle – from having doubt, mostly born out of ignorance and unfamiliarity, to understanding the levers and opportunities and feeling like they’ve got a handle on it and a story that makes sense within their world. So much of what I feel I’m looking for is what a company does really, really well that will pivot nicely into a new direction that is more sustainable. Most companies aren’t just drilling oil and then they’re told that they’ve got to be green – that’s a pretty difficult pivot. However, companies actually are interested in reducing waste, optimising electronics, making the design simpler for manufacturing, et cetera. Those things are quite important prerogatives already, it’s just about leaning into them harder and seeing things as a ‘loop’ – realising Repair is profitable (like with Cars), and that waste streams will be highly lucrative in future.

So far, we have discussed ‘the problem’ with e-waste and repairability. Read the final part of this series to hear Jude’s solutions, and what we need to do to change mindsets and business models.

This article is an extract of a conversation between Jude Pullen and Springwise commissioning editor, Matthew Hempstead. The text has been edited for length and clarity.

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