Is repairability enough? big data insights into smartphone obsolescence and consumer interest in repair

Tamar Makov, Colin Fitzpatrick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A dominant narrative surrounding smartphone lifespans suggests that their objective functional capabilities deteriorate rapidly and that if only devices were more repairable consumers would use them longer thereby reducing demand for new production and e-waste generation. Here we use a big-data approach to help unpack this narrative and examine two related yet distinct aspects: smartphone performance and obsolescence, and consumers interest in repair. Examining over 3.5 million iPhone benchmarking test scores, we reveal that the objective performance of devices remains very stable over time and does not rapidly deteriorate as common wisdom might suggest. In contrast, testing frequency varies substantially. This discrepancy suggests that factors other than objective performance meaningfully influence consumers' perceptions of smartphone functionality and obsolescence. Relatedly, our analysis of 22 million visits to a website offering free repair manuals revels that interest in repair declines exponentially over time and that repairability does not necessarily prolong consumer's interest in repair. Taken together, our findings indicate that non-technical aspects, such as mental depreciation and perceived obsolescence play a critical role in determining smartphone lifespans, and suggest that focus on the technical aspects of repairability as currently discussed by policy makers is unlikely to yield the desired extension in smartphone lifespan. We propose that sustainability advocates try to avoid narratives of planned obsolescence which might have counterproductive impacts on perceived obsolescence and consumer's’ interest in repair, and instead highlight how well devices perform over time. More broadly, this work demonstrates the potential of using novel datasets to directly observe consumer behavior in natural settings, and improve our general understanding of issues such as planned obsolescence and repair.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number127561
JournalJournal of Cleaner Production
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Environmental Science
  • Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Strategy and Management


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