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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’).


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.