22. Narratives of repair: electronic consumer devices in the circular economy

This report focusses on different discourses on the repair of electronic consumer devices in Flanders. It identifies four discourses, revealing different political choices for policymakers.
Two particular discourses are likely to become successful, giving shape to pathways of incremental change and narrow labour market measures. The report therefore suggests to open up the debate on repair, facilitating dialogue between different perspectives and accelerating transformative repair.

As a result of the current environmental crisis, sustainability is high on the political agenda.Therefore, the European Union and the Flemish government, amongst many others, are developing ambitious circular economy policies and initiatives. Yet much remains to be done in terms of achieving long-term sustainability objectives, the circular economy is still in its infancy and its ‘inner circles’ (e.g. rethink, repair, refurbish and remanufacture) are underdeveloped.

To explain the slow uptake of repair as a circular strategy, the literature focusses on so-called barriers, the role of user perspectives and public perception, and broader conditions such as infrastructure and legislation. However, the literature does not take into account that accelerating the uptake of repair and enabling its transformative potential requires new ways of interpretation, in which problems and solutions are redefined.

This report therefore focusses on the divergent interpretations of repair, which may help to understand its slow uptake. It examines how a variety of actors interpret repair by applying the method of discourse analysis to a case study of the repair of electronic consumer devices in Flanders. By doing so, the report highlights the political and societal debate on repair. Specifically, it distinguishes four discourses that struggle over defining repair, namely ‘empowering consumers, citizens and independent companies to repair electronics’, ‘repair and recycling on an equal footing’, ‘repair as a market opportunity’ and ‘the social objectives of repair over economic efficiency’.

The report then discusses the commonalities between the four discourses such as informing consumers, involving the social economy and the crucial role of labour and pioneering projects. These commonalities may be used by policymakers, although they largely consist of small steps toward a circular repair economy.

The four discourses also fundamentally diverge, particularly in terms of political choices about the pathways of change and labour market challenges. Concerning transition pathways, the report argues that is likely that two discourses, advocated by established actors such as manufacturers, retailers and recyclers, are becoming most successful in defining repair and in shaping a pathway of incremental change. The same actors are also proposing specific, narrow labour market measures, mainly assigning roles to public actors who are expected to close the so-called skills gap and to workers in the form of upskilling. Hence, the report adds a new understanding to the literature on the slow development of transformative repair.

The identified pathways of incremental change and narrow labour market measures may not sufficiently address the Government of Flanders’ circular economy ambitions, the current environmental pressures and the slow uptake of repair. On top of that, the two discourses shaping incremental change have blind spots, which are partially highlighted by the two other discourses.

For policymakers and practitioners in Flanders, the report therefore proposes an approach that considers policymaking in complex and multi-actor settings. This reflexive approach helps to open up discussions between the four, competing discourses, allowing reflection, deliberation and participation between multiple actors and supporting the (re)construction of interpretations and development of shared perspectives and, over time, the acceleration of transformative repair. Hence, policymakers may support pioneering projects, promoted by the four discourses, that apply a reflexive governance approach.


CE Center co-authors:


Promoter CE Center


(*Former) Researcher Circular Economy Policy Research Centre