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Why we can't ignore product sustainability

Interest in ethical and environmental issues has never been greater. Our reviews need to change. Here’s why we can’t ignore product sustainability.

Which? has been testing products for more than 60 years. With our rigorous reviews we’ve helped generations of consumers make the right choices – no doubt you have a few cherished Best Buys around your house.

As head of product testing, I’m very proud of this wonderful heritage. But we’re faced with a difficult and uncomfortable question.

Are our reviews fit for our times, for our readers today and the consumers who will use Which? tomorrow? The truth can be as uncomfortable as the question.

Sustainability is an increasingly important factor in buying decisions, and we need to respond to this change. In our test labs we’ve developed new packaging tests and piloted repairability assessments, and we’re finding new ways to analyse our reliability data.

Removing and replacing batteries

For example, in cordless vacs tests, we’re rating how easy it is to remove and replace the battery, the availability of spares and the ease of maintenance.

For washing machines and tumble dryers, we’re developing a basic repairability assessment. Among other things, it asks whether you can get the back off a machine – is it ‘screw or glue’?

We’ve also started to record the amount and recyclability of packaging – both in everyday and big-ticket items.

Environmental and corporate social responsibility

There are also calls to assess the practices of the companies behind the products, following the shift in consumerism towards brand values.

Is this trend relevant for us? In a 2018 survey, we asked 1,400 of you whether we should include brand environmental and corporate social responsibility credentials in our reviews. Two thirds of you agreed.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we stop testing. We know the value of our unique Best Buy verdicts. But if we can offer more, from better insights into durability and longevity, to advise on the wider sustainability practices of the brands behind them, that’s an ambition we think is worth striving for.

Should we be doing more? That’s not a question I ask myself. It’s a question I ask the Which? reader of tomorrow – my smart and courageous 13-year-old daughter, with her whole life ahead of her. Her answer? ‘What are you waiting for, dad?’

This contribution to Which? Conversation first appeared in the April 2019 edition of Which? Magazine (page 15: ‘Inside View’).

Comments

There is a little relevant information here but nothing about specific equipment that I can see (at a quick glance). https://www.which.co.uk/reviews/new-and-used-cars/article/electric-car-charging-guide/how-to-charge-an-electric-car

The web will show brands but it would be invaluable to have independent test information.

On the topic of sustainability my 28 year old Cannon cooker “gave up the ghost ” in the main oven dept. It was the thermocouple that was blown resulting in just a peep from the gas burner never increasing .
As the chances of spares are not very realistic I was about to say a goodbye prayer over it until I realised its got a smaller top oven, inside is the gas burner for toasting but also a separate burner for the top oven —I had never used it , it was in “brand new ” condition and as I no longer cook chickens/turkeys etc this might do .
The control knob was stiff (well I had never used it ) but it worked magnificently nice bright gas flame and just as adjustable as the main oven, now instead of an hour to heat a small pie from frozen its done in 10 minutes or so , it also has a separate fan from the main oven , I am sure I am doing my bit for sustainability as the small oven is all we need now.

Chris Browning says:
25 October 2019

We would like to know what people think about Eco bricks. We have just started making them and are wondering how worthwhile they are.

I hadn’t heard of Ecobricks; found this https://wasteaid.org/toolkit/how-to-turn-mixed-plastic-waste-and-bottles-into-ecobricks/. You can build with a variety of materials such as old tyres, straw bales and these. It looks a laborious business collecting enough bottles and filling material.

I know nothing about ecobricks but years ago I obtained sheets of recycled plastic called ‘Stokbord’ from a farmer, to replace marine plywood that had started to rot. It is less rigid, so required more bracing.

Ianathome says:
29 October 2019

the supplement suggest washing clothes at lower temperature, however current research has found that washing machines working at lower temperatures use more water ( an environmental problem in itself) but also releases more micro plastics a bigger problem. Although this is a complex problem which needs to be addressed in many ways (not least by reducing plastic in clothing) this fact should be acknowledged in the article.

Thanks for posting this, Ianathome. The research you mention suggests that the usual suggestion of lower temperature washing being the best option might not be wise. I would like to see more research so that we can be certain. I am not convinced about the wisdom of reducing the amount of water used by machines, and often find I have to run an extra rinse/spin cycle. I do hope that advice from Which? is always based on the best available knowledge.

We have rightly been concerned about the damage caused by larger plastic items getting into our oceans. Microbeads have been banned, yet little attention has been paid to synthetic fibre in clothing and other textiles that we put in our washing machines. Even where fabrics are largely natural fibres, such as cotton, addition of small amounts of synthetics can greatly improve their properties.

Perhaps the answer could be for washing machines to incorporate an outlet filter to trap fibres released during the washing process. There is the danger that users could then clean the filter by washing it under the tap, meaning that nothing has been achieved.

The January 2020 magazine has arrived and the cover feature is ‘Appliance brands you can trust’. It covers white goods/kitchen appliances, corded and cordless vacuum cleaners and steam cleaners. The RELIABILITY of popular brands is compared on the basis of:

> Test performance – a score covering number tested, number of best buys and number of don’t buys – which are combined in some way (not explained) to produce an average test score.
> Survey scores – these are presumably from Connect surveys

The table headings suggest that the RELIABILITY SCORE is derived from:
> Average price payed by owners
> Customer score
That does not make sense. Where the average working life of different brands of washing machines, fridges, etc. features is not made clear.

> There are also comparisons of reliability score against mean spend (just for washing machines)
> There is information showing that washer-dryers are markedly less reliable than separate washers and dryers
> There is some evidence that, on average, it might be worth spending more on a dishwasher for greater reliability
> It is mentioned that paying more does not necessarily mean better performance of products

It’s good to have information about product reliability but equally important that information is properly explained.

Derek Thorpe says:
29 March 2020

Can you put consumer impact on UK sustainability into perspective. Yes we should all do more to reuse and recycle but what proportion of UK consumption is domestic vs “business” – commercial, industrial and state. Without the figures, I have little faith in our impact. Yes we can all make a difference but if domestic consumption impacts to a minor proportion, let’s put more pressure on industry. Can we ask the same questions of commerce, that we scrutinise in our home lives?
All areas have targets but large proportions of the recycling is sold overseas, simply because our County structure does not co-operate to establish large scale, economic recycling facilities in this country. Hard plastic is a good example. It does mostly end up in South America and the Far East (no longer China) and then into the sea. The reason, we do not have the facilities to process it here.

I would not suppose that consumer waste is a lesser proportion of the overall waste generated in the UK.

Industry and commerce are quite efficient at extracting value from waste material and can undertake recycling on an industrial scale with processes and outlets that reuse or reconstitute material. Most manufacturing processes are well-designed to minimise the consumption of resources for economic reasons [i.e. profits] whereas domestic consumers usually just want to get rid of it and leave it to their local authority to remove and dispose of it.

As you say, waste disposal authorities are not well equipped to aggregate specialist waste material in order to optimise its recycling economically, although much is transferred to processors who have that capability. However, a lot is dumped or exported for want of a market in the UK.

Hard plastic is a difficult material to recycle efficiently without environmental compromise. Exporting it is arguably immoral unless there is a secured after-market and recycling process that will ensure its safe reuse. There is a case for banning its export altogether but the implications of that need to be thoroughly explored.

Instead of trying – and failing – to find new uses for such material [which often has complex and inconsistent composition] would it not be better to use other materials like aluminium that can be easily and almost infinitely reprocessed [and which has other superior properties]?

A particular grievance I have in terms of consumer waste is beer bottles. These used to be made to a universal standard design and could be reused by any brewery after cleansing with just relabeling. Now no two bottles seem to be the same size and shape so they all get put in the recycling which requires expensive separation and reforming to make replacement bottles. There are also additional transport and environmental costs because the empties don’t go back to the brewery or supplier for refilling.

It is worse with wine bottles which, although more standardised, are generally not returned to the country of origin so virgin material is used to make replacement bottles and the waste glass arising in this country is reused for low-grade applications. In environmental terms this is possibly sustainable since the return transport of heavy material is avoided, but there is an unfortunate impact on the earth’s resources overall. Wine connoisseurs would no doubt be offended if all wine from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America and California was tanked into the UK and then bottled here [as some cheap wine is] but that could reduce waste by creating a mass market in the UK for wine bottles and make reprocessing more economical and environmentally acceptable. I doubt if there is even much sensible reuse of wine bottles imported from the European continent.

Left to its own devices, consumer industries will probably not do much to tackle these problems so legislation would be needed to compel good value recycling [both environmentally and economically] but those sort of measures are anathema to the present government [which hardly has time to even consider it].

Derek Thorpe says:
29 March 2020

John, You said industry is good at recycling. I disagree. Your example shows that industry prefers to use cheap virgin materials. They’re not afraid of high prices, as we consumers pay for the “expensive” wines, then “recycle” the bottle. The same in building industry, sourcing new trees, rarely reusing wood.
The quest is – Which area is most damaging? Sort it out, then identify the next.

I agree that there is a lot of room for improvement with consumer industries where marketing imperatives and styling are dominant. Motor cars and brown goods [home entertainment] would be good starting places. Fashion clothing manufacture is also extremely wasteful. But I do feel that manufacturing processes are generally conservative in the use of materials given the specification to which they are required to make the product. That’s where the changes are needed and is a great challenge in a consumerist society. I feel that Which? has a lot to learn in that area

Reprocessed wood is increasingly being used in the building industry, especially in the form of MDF, chipboard, oriented strand board and gluelam beams but there are technical limitations affecting structural components. Wood has largely been replaced by metal [galvanised steel] in the supporting framework of non-structural internal walls. For exposed internal woodwork like staircases, door frames and skirtings – where appearance is an important consideration – the work and energy involved in reforming reclaimed timber to a consistent finish is probably not environmentally efficient. There is no need for any wood to be wasted or destroyed but finding the best outlet for treated or defective timber remains a problem. At least trees can be sustainably managed unlike minerals.