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Refurbished electronics pioneer Back Market is breaking our addiction to new gadgets

Humans created 63.3 million tons of e-waste last year. By elevating used electronics—and championing the right to repair—Back Market is fighting back.

Refurbished electronics pioneer Back Market is breaking our addiction to new gadgets
[Illustrations: Kemal Sanli]

This story is part of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2022. Explore the full list of companies that are reshaping their businesses, industries, and the broader culture.

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Since its online marketplace for renewed electronics launched in 2014, Back Market has been teaching shoppers that new is not always better. Last year, it partnered with Asurion to offer extended-warranty repairs (on top of its standard 12-month warranty) and launched a mobile app with a diagnostic tool that allows buyers to confirm their refurbished gear is in top shape.

Even more important: Back Market is building out the used-electronics ecosystem with tools for refurbishers. The company now sources and tests repair components, trains and certifies refurbishers, and shares data with them on trending products. Its new Back Care program, meanwhile, provides customer service on behalf of refurbishers.

Back Market’s customer base grew from 5 million to 6 million over the last half of 2021. “We are at the beginning of a trend that will be quite massive,” says Vianney Vaute, cofounder and chief creative officer of Back Market. Here’s how the market for refurbished electronics has grown over the past two decades. 

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[Illustration: Kemal Sanli]

2002: eBay brings used electronics online 

Seven years after its launch, eBay opens an electronics vertical. The site sells roughly $1.8 billion worth of consumer electronics in 2002, but it will be years before shoppers feel fully confident about buying renewed gear. eBay’s own certified refurbished program doesn’t launch until 2020.

[Illustration: Kemal Sanli]

2003: E-waste becomes a political issue

With cellphones proliferating, the European Union sets the world’s first targets for the collection, recycling, and recovery of used electronics. A few years later, it passes a directive requiring electronics makers to limit their use of hazardous materials. Other governments, however, are slow to follow.

[Illustration: Kemal Sanli]

2007: The iPhone creates an obsession with new electronics

Millions of old flip phones begin their path to obsolescence as customers, with generous subsidies from AT&T, become accustomed to buying a new phone every two years when they renew their contracts. The New York Times Magazine reports that e-waste is the fastest-growing contributor to America’s municipal waste stream.

[Illustration: Kemal Sanli]

2013: Trade-ins become the norm

T-Mobile eliminates two-year contracts and stops subsidizing new smartphones; you can now switch to a new phone when trading in the old. Others copy the model, including Apple, which launches its own trade-in program, spurring the refurbishment market. Pressured by the Federal Communications Commission, carriers make phones easier to use on any network.

[Illustration: Kemal Sanli]

2014: Back Market puts refurbished products on a pedestal

Electronics refurbishing has become a thriving industry, but it flies under the radar of consumers, who aren’t aware of their options. Back Market cofounders Thibaud Hug de Larauze, Quentin Le Brouster, and Vianney Vaute leverage industry connections to launch a marketplace, initially in France, that elevates these products.

[Illustration: Kemal Sanli]

2019: The right to repair becomes presidential campaign fodder

On the presidential campaign trail, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both endorse a right-to-repair law to allow farmers to fix their own agricultural equipment. It’s part of a broader reckoning for the ways in which device makers restrict repairs. States start holding hearings on right-to-repair laws, which Apple and other electronics makers oppose.

[Illustration: Kemal Sanli]

2019: Recycling fails to keep up

The world generates 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste–up 21% over five years and equivalent to the weight of 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2. A survey finds that just 16% of consumers bought refurbished electronics for environmental reasons, but that number climbs to 25% within two years.

[Illustration: Kemal Sanli]

2021: The right to repair is finally established in the U.S. 

In July, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) votes to crack down on electronics makers that illegally try to restrict repairs of their products. A few months later, Apple backs down and announces that it will sell parts and provide service manuals directly to users in early 2022.

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