What bodies set the standard for global business practices? More often than not, it’s not a supranational authority like the World Trade Organization, but a regulatory bloc that represents a sufficiently large market for regional interests to dictate goods available to the greater market—a modus operandi familiar to the European Union (EU). On January 13, the EU went forward with its push to force manufacturers to adopt a common charger standard for all mobile phones, a move that Apple claims could cost it as much as $2 billion. Although new Apple products already use or are compatible with USB-C, Apple believes that over one billion of its existing customers could be affected by this change, and that setting a single standard now would stifle future innovation.
EU regulators have responded to Apple’s protests by maintaining that old chargers generate as much as 51,000 tons of electronic waste every year.
“We are drowning in an ocean of electronic waste,” said Roza Thun, a European Parliament member from Poland. “Demand grows, and with it, waste and exploitation of natural resources.”
This is not the first time the EU has approached the topic. In 2009, EU regulators succeeded in working with manufacturers to sign a non-enforceable memorandum of understanding to make advances towards a single charging standard, with adapters able to serve as a stopgap measure. Five years later, the European Parliament (EP) passed a telecommunications directive that included the need for manufacturers to establish a common charger, but lacked any enforcement mechanisms.
Maroš Šefčovič, the EU commissioner for the Digital Single Market, has cheered on efforts to require a standard charger, citing the decline in the number of commonly used chargers from over 30 to three.
Regardless of the EU’s intentions, Apple analysts claim supply-chain leaks indicate that the company has been planning to move its products towards wireless-only charging and syncing as early as 2021. Given this information, criticisms against the European Commission for inhibiting innovation through excessive regulation and ‘standardization’ appear to be valid. Even looking back, consumers can see that had the 2014 EP directive been enforceable use of USB-C, which was finalized four months after the directive’s passage, would have been impermissible; requiring a single charger may again derail efforts by companies to innovate past cabled solutions, as without competition or the freedom to change, technology stagnates.