Lessons from the Apple trial: can we put the charger back in the box?

Two years ago, Apple decided not to pack a charger head in the box of the iPhones, for environmental reasons the company claimed, but to include only a cable with USB-C on the charger-side and Lightning on the phone-output side. The company's other argument for this decision was that households have a lot of accumulated and unused charging heads anyway, so not everyone will necessarily need to buy a new one. The decision was followed by a big outrage at the beginning, but now, even Apple's competitors have adopted the solution and more and more devices are arriving without adapters.

However, not only have consumers been unenthusiastic about Apple's decision, which is clearly not only environmentally but also financially beneficial for the company, but several states have also taken some actions, claiming that it is against their consumer protection rules to leave the charger out. One such country was France, where iPhones are still sold with a charger and earphones, but Brazilian law also prohibits requiring consumers to buy two separate products for being able to use one of them.

In the latter state, a private person sued Apple and was eventually awarded damages of BRL 5,000, or around HUF 370,000, by a court in the Brazilian city of Goiania, finding that the separate sale of the phone and the charger head constituted a related sale and therefore violated the country's consumer protection law.

During the lawsuit, Apple defended itself with the above argument based on the existence of charging heads in households and its environmental concerns, but the court ultimately found that it was not justified to oblige consumers to buy an extra product on presumption that there must be an adapter in the household that can charge an iPhone. Apple's argument on this point alone is questionable because the phone comes with a USB-C type charging cable, so only a charger that also has such type of input can be used. The range of suitable adapters is therefore not that wide, and given that USB-C is only just starting to become widespread, anyone replacing their phone after a long period of time will certainly have to buy a new charging head, which means an additional cost on top of the price of the iPhone, maybe again for Apple’s benefit.

The successful trial for damages could therefore easily set a precedent for similar lawsuits by individuals around the world so it is possible that eventually, as in the French market, the company will backtrack in other countries as well, and return the charger to the box of the phone. But it is also possible that more countries will decide to tighten their consumer protection rules to exclude such sales practices.

The lesson from this lawsuit is that the laws of individual states can easily undermine the decisions and ambitions of large multinational companies like Apple, but also an important factor at the same time, that the opposition of technology and law is not necessarily the most favourable set-up as the world is increasingly going 'wireless' these days. 

In the future, however, it will not only be the packaging of chargers that will be a headache for the company, but also transforming the iPhone’s connector, as the European Union has already started a legislative process that will make the use of USB-C type for phone outputs mandatory for phones sold in the EU, so Apple, which has been a maverick so far, may also have to adapt to the unifying rules.

Author: Dr. Dániel Balázs

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