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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’).


Many thanks to Mike for writing this.

Open question to the room – what would a great review that includes product sustainability data look like for you? For me, I’d want to read how repairable the device is. Getting new bluetooth earbuds is great – until the battery goes, and can’t be replaced or repaired, leaving you with a £100+ piece of e-waste. What would you like to see included?

I’m keen to know about repairability but also want to know that spares are likely to be available for a reasonable amount of time and at a sensible price. Some manufacturers will not provide information to anyone other than their agents, so if there is an error code shown you might not be able to find out what it means.

I recently repaired my dishwasher after looking at a couple of YouTube videos relating to similar models. It would have been good if the manufacturer had provided the information.

More recently I replaced the battery in my phone, following good instructions on the iFixit website and buying the battery from a third party supplier because the manufacturer does not supply spares, never mind advice on how to do the job. It would be a great help if phone batteries were user-replaceable, but none of the most popular smartphones now allow this, meaning an expensive repair or more e-waste.

I was pleased to see mention of a change in approach to product testing. I, too, think information on durability and repairability is essential for consumers to make a properly informed purchasing decision. As well as the usual testing I believe Which? can learn a lot by having people familiar with the particular product type examine the components and build quality. A product might perform well on initial tests but I want mine to continue doing so for as long as is possible.

I hope Which? will continue their testing of products, but pay much more attention to how long they are likely to last, and how easily and economically they can be repaired to extend their durability, by both availability of sensibly-priced spares (including decent pattern parts) and ease of repair. This will detract from manufacturers’ production volumes but, if we want a more sustainable world, a better circular economy, less waste then it will have to be faced sooner or later.

To do this quicker and better will, in my view, require a cooperative effort with all appropriate consumer product testing organisations throughout Europe; we will all use mostly the same products and brands. I wonder if Which? are looking at this approach? BEUC is the umbrella organisation but I have no idea how effective they are at instigating and coordinating such work; they have published a lot of words on sustainability but I don’t know about action.

As regards “brand environmental and corporate social responsibilities” to be honest this is not top of my list when choosing a product. Of course it matters but what matters more to me initially is a proper evaluation of the product itself; that is more than enough work to get this approach rolling.

I have two corded vacuum cleaners. The ‘new’ one is about fifteen years old and the old one is 39 years old and is used mainly to clean the car. Both have been repaired when necessary. Years ago I had a handheld cordless vacuum cleaner, but it was not very effective and the batteries were not user-replaceable. I could have bought batteries from a specialist, but that would have been expensive and time consuming.

Nowadays, most rechargeable products have lithium batteries and these come in many sizes. I had two Panasonic compact cameras that looked very similar and the batteries had the same capacity, but they were not interchangeable.

What is needed is to move towards standard sizes of rechargeable lithium batteries that can be used in different brands of cameras, vacuum cleaners, etc. and for these to be user-replaceable. The fact that many products use AA or AAA batteries shows that it would be feasible.

It is encouraging that an increasing number of power tools come with batteries that can be swapped between tools of the same brand. One small step.

I am not planning to buy a cordless vacuum cleaner for the time being because there is no assurance that spare batteries will be available at a reasonable price in five or ten years.

Thanks for the Convo, Mike.

I was delighted to see this recent Which? article that highlights the fact that corded vacuum cleaners are likely to last longer and offer other benefits: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/03/5-reasons-why-you-shouldnt-write-off-corded-vacuum-cleaners/

Comparing the cost of ownership might show that cordless vacs are a costly choice and a contribution to the mountain of electronic waste.

Wavechange, your first paragraph could have been written by me!!!

We still have an old Goblin for dirty jobs that still has the original intact fabric collection bag.

In 2012, we bought a Black & Decker pole pruner with a rechargeable battery. A special offer at the time of purchase got us a free spare battery. With little use, after a couple of years the batteries would not charge. B&D replaced them as a gesture of goodwill. We were told to periodically discharge and recharge them, but we kept forgetting and they are now dead. So a perfectly good working pole pruner with no power, what a waste. There now seems to be a problem with availability for the 18v battery that fitted a range of garden products, so could be the premature end to quite a few garden tools.

The cost to replace 2 batteries was very similar to purchasing an electric pole pruner, so we opted for an electric one, easier to handle and available to use anytime you want (except wet conditions of course).

We also have/had a hand-held vac, shavers, toothbrushes, power tools, numerous torches that had/used specific or in-built rechargeable batteries that all failed prematurely. £130 to replace an oldish but still useable laptop battery was far too much so to invest in an expensive Dyson rechargeable doesn’t appeal at all.

Maybe rechargeable batteries are improving. We have had several AA/AAA battery chargers over the years that have all proved to be quite useless.

A few months ago, with so many items running on AA/AAA batteries, and torches always running out of juice, we decided to invest in Panasonic Eneloop Pro rechargeables. It is early days yet, but looking a lot more promising than previously. Forum discussions rather than product reviews helped us make up our minds.

One gripe I do have is not being able to buy them directly from Panasonic so we can be 100% sure they are genuine batteries. Some years ago, an eBay seller was selling “Genuine Nikon IOM Batteries” with a photo of the label also spelt IOM confirming he had not misspelled the description. So now I am always very wary where they come from.

Batteries definitely need to be standardised, affordable and easy to replace, but most of all, we all have a duty of responsibility to not contribute to the mountain of electronic waste.

I’ve been caught out too, Alfa. Many years ago I had a Black & Decker ‘Dustbuster’ and I followed the instructions and left it on charge. The nickel-cadmium batteries gradually lost capacity and from reading up on the subject I found that keeping them on charge causes the batteries to dry up. The advice to discharge these batteries regularly by using the tool is good. That prevents dendrites growing through the separator, which makes the battery unable to hold a charge. For other reasons it’s vital to stop using the tool when it starts to lose power or you will quickly wreck the battery. None of this applies to the lithium ion batteries that are quickly replacing older types. What matters here is to avoid leaving batteries fully discharged.

I remember your tale about the Nikon IOM battery. 🙂 I was wary about buying a replacement battery for my ‘old’ iPhone but used a supplier suggested by Ian and it works fine, despite the low price.

I’ve had very mixed success with AA and AAA rechargeables. I have had most success with lower capacity ones, but the higher capacity ones often lose charge in storage. It may be a single faulty cell in a set of four that is the problem and I must take back a set of Duracell rechargeables with this problem. It’s not possible to use lithium batteries as direct replacements for AA and AAA because the voltage per cell is 3.7V instead of 1.2V. I might have a look at the Eneloop or other precharged batteries.

We are buying the rechargeables as we need them so there will only ever be a spare set of 4 ready to use rather than storing too many. I think it is a good idea to keep track of rechargeables in remote controls to make sure batteries don’t stay in them too long and maybe recycle them in torches where they can be easily run down..

We have had a few of these high powered torches, brilliant at first, but they have a very short life.

They have to be plugged into the mains to recharge and usually between 6 months and a year they just stop charging. Most of them have gone back for refunds so don’t know what they look like inside and whether the battery can be replaced.

Most of the hand lamps like that use sealed lead-acid batteries, which won’t last long unless kept fully charged. It’s tempting to leave them on charge but that dries out the battery and shortens its life. LED torches are a better bet, in my view, and there are some powerful ones available if needed. It’s good to hear that you have managed to get products replaced, Alfa.

My remote controls are not used often, so I tend to go for non-rechargeable batteries. Kodak ones are cheap and unlike more expensive brands such as Duracell, I have not had problems with leakage. Kodak and some other cheaper brands perform poorly in Which? tests because of lower capacity, but that’s not important for products such as clocks that have a low power consumption. Apart from that I try to use rechargeables where possible.

For me, the most useful indicator of how long a product might last is the length of the guarantee. If a manufacturer or retailer is prepared to offer a five year guarantee then they will have to pay for the cost of providing customers with a suitable remedy if problems arise, and it would quickly wipe out their profit if they have to foot the bill for many repairs. A guarantee is of course in addition to statutory rights under the Consumer Rights Act but in my experience it is much easier to pursue a claim under a manufacturer’s guarantee.

Cars used to come with one year guarantees but we have moved on and having a decent guarantee is an important selling point for these expensive purchases.

I welcome Which? mentioning products that come with decent guarantees.

I agree about longer warranties being a good back-up. However i want major appliances that I buy to last longer than 5 years. My dishwasher came with a (purchased) 10 year warranty at a sensible total price. My fridge freezer failed after 3 years and was replaced with a brand new one – what a waste.

There are many products on the market that are cheap and will be short lived and unrepairable; they may suit some people who will use them very little and I wouldn’t expect those to come with 5 year warranties.

Maybe manufacturers should be made to offer warranties of 3, 5 and 10 years – repair or replace – at a cost to the purchaser (all gurantees will cost money, whether built into the purchase price or an extra). That should visibly differentiate between the durability of different products and brands on a competitive basis. We could then look at real “cost per year of ownership” when deciding on a purchase.

However, fundamental to this in my view is a better use of resources and less waste. I want to see a choice of products that genuinely last, not ones that we insure against the costs of failure. I’d like less landfill and would be happy to see a revival of the domestic appliance (and other) repair network. I’d particularly like to see compulsory instruction manuals to enable competent owners to repair appliances and other products themselves – at their own risk of course.

Although I advocate longer guarantees there are some problems.

I had two cases last year where retailers wanted me to deal with the manufacturer because the products were still under guarantee and registered, they were over a year old. I stood my ground and in both cases the products (a Humax box) were replaced by new ones.

I bought a Miele washing machine that had a two year guarantee and the retailer offered an additional three years cover at no extra cost. When I register the appliance with Miele I discovered that the additional cover was with Domestic & General – which John Lewis had not explained. Miele had made a mistake with the serial number and despite multiple calls all I achieved was one year’s extra cover. I have kept the correspondence and if I have to make a claim within five years I will do so.

Looking at the JL website, I see appliances offered with the incentive: “Claim an additional 3 year guarantee at no extra cost.” To my mind, a guarantee is something offered by the manufacturer and the correct term would be an ‘extended warranty’ if the cover was provided by a third party insurance policy under different terms & conditions.

I see no problem in manufacturers insuring their guarantees. I would hope that the insurer would assess the risk properly and give better terms to better products. Inherently better products would still be what I want to buy.

I would be happier if JL had made it clear that I was buying an insurance-backed extended warranty rather than an extended guarantee.

One of the reasons I have avoided extended warranties is because I have heard of so many problems, including some on Which? Convo.

I assume that many of us want products that will prove durable and have suggested that information could be obtained from independent field service engineers, who repair appliances regularly. Obviously this information will not be available when products are launched.

Historic performance would certainly be a great source of information – Which? Connect could also contribute to that. However, an independent field service engineer, or someone with similar experience and knowledge, could dismantle a new product and assess its component and build quality and pronounce on its likely durability, problems area, how easy or difficult to repair and so on. Which? may need to find such people; they are not the same necessarily as test lab staff.

Until our Connect surveys ask important questions such as how much products have been used, they are going to sacrifice useful information that we could provide. I’m sure that I’m not alone in owning some products that have been little used. For example I have a carpet cleaner that is rarely needed because I don’t have pets or children and take off my outdoor shoes. It was still a useful purchase but it would not be useful if I responded to a survey and said how long it had lasted.

It’s always useful to inspect goods for repairability, but for this to be useful we need to know that spares are available and will remain so for a reasonable time – either from the manufacturer or a third party supplier. With popular products there is more chance of third party spares. Friends kept their dishwasher going for 23 years because spares were cheap and readily available. At one time it was used two or three times a day, thanks to a large family.

The recent survey on small appliances asked how often my kettle was used:
O – Every day
O – Every 2-3 days
O – Every 4-5 days
O – Once a week
O – Every 2-3 weeks
O – Once a month
O – Less often than once a month
O – Not sure

Our kettle is used at least 6 times a day. One option for day, but 3 options spanning a week covering 1-4 uses (does that make sense?)

Whilst battery powered appliances may be convenient they use electricity less efficiently (conversion process). I also wonder how long the batteries last – as long as my 18 year old Miele plug in? They consume considerable resource.

I wonder if we’d started off with battery powered devices where the batteries ran down, added weight, and then needed replacing, then someone came along and said – here’s a (vacuum cleaner) without all that, you just push this wire into a hole in the wall and it runs as long as you like, is lighter, and nothing to replace? Use batteries for devices that are not near socket outlets – of course they have a valuable place in the scheme of things.

Maybe the power of marketing is convincing us that we need cordless cleaners. 🙂 I don’t find it difficult to use a wired vacuum cleaner, even to do the stairs. On the other hand, I would not be without my cordless drills, mainly because I use them away from home, and away from mains power. I’m surprised how long the lithium batteries are lasting compared with the earlier ones with NiCd batteries.

Batteries have a nasty habit of running out in the middle of jobs.

I know; I can never find mine…

Fridges and freezers run 24/7 but the life of mechanical products such as washing machines will depend to some extent on how long they are used. Some of us would like to see manufacturers provide information about suitability for use. Printers often come with guidance, such as maximum number of pages printed per month.

In the case of a washing machine, this could be stated as the approximate number of cycles or operating hours that can be expected for a machine and that could be shown alongside declarations of energy and water use, available at the point of sale. That would help users choose a machine that is best suited to their requirements. Now that most machines have a display it would be easy to show number of cycles and this would help both customers and service engineers know how much the machine had been used.

Which? could do well to review all the comments made on this topic in previous Convos (maybe they have). Such points have been made a number of times – cycles by washing machines, dryers, dishwashers and many appliances are a relevant durability criterion, but the type of cycle is also important, and no doubt so are other factors such as the load in a washing machine and the spin speed selected.

One option would be to lease an appliance and simply have it replaced if it fails. I have an instinctive dislike of such things – someone usually makes an extra profit out of this and i believe it can lead to more waste, but am prepared to be wrong. I prefer to own what I need to use exclusively.

I think Which? should review this whole topic from the ground up and publish a report that can be developed into action. Convo contributions can be one source of view, opinion and information.

Meanwhile, assessment of real durability and repairability would be a big step forward. I hope Which? will keep us informed as to how they are tackling this.

Jon asked a question in his opening comment “what would a great review that includes product sustainability data look like for you?” . In my view a simplistic answer would be: this product should last for……(years, cycles, hours) ….without failure, an unconditional guarantee is offered for…..(excluding abuse and misuse) and these product areas can be repaired/replaced at this cost should they fail. It should also say what cannot be repaired or replaced, or a repair that would be excessively expensive.

From the introduction: “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.” I would very much welcome this information, though it should come from an independent source.

It’s worth having a look at how companies and their products fare on the Ethical Consumer website: https://www.ethicalconsumer.org Some of the information is publicly available and you need to subscribe to access more detail. I hope Which? has a subscription or other access to this and other sources of information.

I am not sure whether we are going to be able to get much useful information on corporate social responsibility for goods made in the Far East under a European or American brand name. That’s not a reason not to pursue it, however.

Many clothing retailers have outstandingly good CSR documents in their annual reports but have been caught out in relation to their suppliers and sub-contractors. The same could be true in respect of consumer durables.

I agree that it’s not easy and that you cannot rely on what the companies may claim, hence the need for independent assessment. The publicity of poor ethical practices in the clothing and electronics industries does seem to have had a positive effect.

We know that familiar companies are responsible for ensuring that their products comply with all relevant safety and other standards and many do this well, even if their products are made in the Far East.

Whether consumers will pay much attention to CSR and sustainability remains to be seen but it surely it would be good to praise the companies that are making an effort.

It’ll be a bit like “Mission Statements”. I wonder how Apple would fare in this?

That’s why I am keen on independent assessment.

There’s a bit of a dichotomy or trichotomy going on here. Looking at ethical issues, there are those concerning the employment practises of some Asian and Indian companies and whether we should support products that are well made but at a human cost. The second, outlined by the introduction, is that of buying products that are badly made in terms of inferior materials; the inability to replace parts at all or without great expense; the longevity of the product and its reliability while it is working. Thirdly we want a product that does what we want at a price we can afford. That price will, of course dictate how much the product does what we want or to what degree it does it.
Basically when we choose to buy something we want it to fulfil a need and do something useful for us. Its features, the perceived quality of construction and the price are uppermost, as are the design faults that make the product hard to use, ineffective in some areas or less suitable for our particular application. Buying a cheap cordless screwdriver and expecting it to drill metal is unrealistic, buying a drill that is supposed to do this and doesn’t is frustrating. Thus our choice of product is partly our responsibility as well as the manufacturers. For all of the above we look to Which?, customer reviews and our own appreciation of the product to make an informed choice.
At this stage there is nothing anywhere to tell us how the product was made, under what circumstances, or its reparability. Likewise we are left to judge whether our purchase is environmentally friendly. There is a balance, for example, between the joys of a warm, friendly and inviting wood burning stove, that many aspire to, and the need to avoid burning fossil fuels and polluting with wood smoke. Do we buy a wonderful washing machine that washes everything perfectly but has been made without a method of repairing it in Asia where we have no idea of the factory working conditions? Does Which?, since we are discussing it here, have enough knowledge and insight to report on these ethical issues and, if it does, would a brilliant product be marked down as a “don’t buy” because of this knowledge? If enough people took note of the ethical dimension, things would change in order to sell goods to us. On the other hand do we have the time and inclination to go beyond the practicalities of getting something to do the job? If it is available why not purchase it? Perhaps there is a governmental role here, one in which they take account of these environmental and ethical issues and simply ban those things that contravene their standards. I don’t see that happening. They are fully stretched getting rid of the flood of counterfeit and dangerous goods that are being shipped over here and providing criminals with an income. As with the motor industry, we have to start with the here and now and work forward rather than making draconian decisions that alter lives without giving time for us to adapt. When the background to a product becomes as important to us as it usefulness the world will change in places where this matters, until then it is a matter of altering expectation and normality as has happened with recycling and plastic bags.

Thanks for that, Vynor. Sustainability and ethical issues are far from simple. I agree that government should act, not only to tackle ethical issues but to require companies to hold spares for our larger appliances for a minimum period and to ban the use of integrated assemblies that would cost more than certain percentage of the original cost to replace. I don’t believe that Which? should ignore these issues and assume that what Mike has in mind is that Which? should help make us more aware of information that already exists.

Here is a relevant article that heads today’s Which? homepage: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/03/the-hidden-cost-of-your-smartphone/ Towards the end of the video we are given sensible advice: Keep your phone and don’t be tempted to upgrade sooner than you need to, and if the power is not lasting as long as it used to, replace the battery rather than the phone. Unfortunately, in an article on power bank chargers we are told: “Batteries don’t last forever – if your smartphone has given up the ghost, check out our best smartphone recommendations for a great range of top-rated mobile phones.” As someone who has kept their phone for five years and replaced the battery, I have tried to take the responsible approach and it has saved me the cost of a new phone. My battery was firmly glued to the case, yet the manufacturers could have used simple clips to hold it in place. I wish Which? and other consumer associations had worked together to tackle the growing problem of phones and other mobile devices without user-replaceable batteries, but now all the main manufacturers are using batteries that cannot easily be replaced by the user.

As far as I know, all brands of smart TVs will lose functionality within a few years of purchase. I would like to see Which? reports provide information about whether we can make a claim under the Consumer Rights Act and the various options to restore functionality by adding a plug-in device.

Recapping a bit of the above, there’s a strong showing for:

Durability, in particular:
– how long the product might last, based on anticipated usage (e.g. printers printing x number of pages per month)
– how products/brands have historically performed
– how long the batteries might last (where applicable)

Repairability, in particular:
– whether instruction manuals enabling one to diagnose and fix problems are available
– whether spare parts are available (and if so, how to get them).

The product warranty / guarantee – whether it’s available, how long it is for, etc.

Corporate Social Responsibility: more of a nice-to-have, but not the highest rank in the room.

Anything I’ve missed, or as-yet unsaid?

Also, thanks to those who have been voting for comments! Made this summary much easier!

Jon, generally agree. I hope Which? will develop a plan to attack this and use willing members to continue to contribute.

You do not mention cooperative work with other consumer organisations. This is a big job that affects all European consumers. I do not think Which? should tackle this on its own.

A few thoughts, Jon:

With batteries we also need to know if they are user-replaceable, available as spares and how long they are likely to remain available – that might have to be estimated from past performance of brands.

With instruction manuals we need to know if the manufacturer makes them available online and if they contain useful information about diagnosing faults.

Do manufacturers make parts and information generally available or are these restricted to their own agents? That can make a big difference in the cost of having repairs done and whether you can do them yourself.

In practical terms we need to know how good a product is at doing its job. You list the other considerations: longevity, reparability and reliability based on track record. That is core Which? territory. This conversation seems to be more ethically based and your “Corporate Social Responsibility” is both dismissive (nice to have but not high ranking) and rather too general to be useful. As I’ve tried to explain above, there are many facets to ethical product sourcing, and the questions being asked here by ‘posters’, are of a nature outside the actual look shape and workings of the product and more to do with how it is made, from what and by whom. Also who looks after these things for the country and consumer. Reparability is more than just spare parts and access, it is whether the product is designed for repair in the first place or whether we are expected to throw it away and buy another. Associated with this is the expectation that this year’s model is better than last years and we should dispose of the old one.

When Which? review new products I would like to see a realistic appraisal of improvements and not a promotion of “the new”; we need to be advised whether buying an existing model remains a sensible option – it often is. I bought a dishwasher that was being replaced by a “new model”; mine was considerably cheaper and washes dishes as well as I could want. I’d like to see this model upgrading put in real perspective.

One product it particularly applies to, it seems to me, is mobile phones. There should be a requirement that existing facilities and apps are maintained for the physical lifetime of the phone; fine for new apps to be developed but I want continued functionality on what is an expensive product.

Repairability does include the ease (therefore cost) with which components that might fail can be replaced and includes the long term availability of spares at sensible prices (i.e. not inflated as many spares are). Many components can be “standardised” so their important features are common to different manufacturers – motor size and fixings, pump connections, bearings, belts, batteries, for example.

I tend to avoid recently released products because new models often have design faults that are corrected within months of first release. Like Malcolm, I look for discontinued models available at large discounts compared with the original price. I would not do this for a phone because that could mean that security updates would not be available for long. My five year old phone is still up to date.

I mentioned the benefit of having standard sized batteries that could be used for different brands of products. I cannot see much chance of having standardised components without legislation, though would strongly support doing this. Most bearings and belts are fairly easy to get hold of if you know or can measure the sizes.

I agree with Vynor over CSR. I would Which? to report on relevant issues where it might help customers to make informed decisions.

I suspect corporate and social responsibility will depend substantially upon the regulations – or not – that are in force in the country of manufacture. It is not just completed products, but components. And if we demand cheap products, clothing, toys and are prepared to buy cheap stuff from whatever source, then we just support these low-standard sources.

How have we reached a state of affairs where you can get two dishwashers for the price of a good smart phone?

Sadly it’s not just cheap products. Many large manufacturers have let us down, and you mentioned Apple earlier, Malcolm. Apple and other companies that have been targeted by negative publicity have put in a lot of effort, as judged by others rather their own statements.

I’m pleased to see that the current Which? recommended energy provider fares better on Environmental Consumer than the large suppliers. Pointing out that some companies do significantly better than others is, in my view, worthwhile.

John wrote: “How have we reached a state of affairs where you can get two dishwashers for the price of a good smart phone?” One reason is that a smartphone is an extremely powerful and versatile portable computer that can be used for an ever-increasing range of purposes. On the other hand, a dishwasher is relatively simple and does one task.
Like anything else, a smartphone can be poor value for money if it is little used.

Agence France-Presse

Tue 30 Oct 2018 06.16 GMT Last modified on Tue 30 Oct 2018 06.17 GMT
This article is over 4 months old
“Apple is investigating a factory in southwest China after a labour rights group said the tech giant’s supplier forced student workers to work “like robots” to assemble its popular Apple Watch.

Many were compelled to work in order to get their vocational degrees and had to do night shifts, according to an investigation by Hong Kong-based NGO Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM).

I have no first-hand information, of course, just what gets reported. Is it “fake news”. I don’t know but, in the past, Apple have been heavily criticised for their working practices in China that no doubt made them huge profits on overpriced products. Maybe it is a case of cleaning up a particular act only when they get found out, but maybe the company ethos is at fault to allow these transgressions in the first place. If transgressions they genuinely are. If the people in charge don’t change, does their ethos?

DerekP says:
26 March 2019

John Ward asked:

How have we reached a state of affairs where you can get two dishwashers for the price of a good smart phone?

John, I think you’ve been reading too many Which? reviews of good but EXPENSIVE smartphones.

If you survey consumers about their attitude to corporate and social responsibility I guess many will say it is important. If you look at the products they purchase I wonder just how many really take it into account. Working and environmental practices are something a country needs to regulate as we have gradually done, but to a reduction in our competitiveness. A good result with a penalty. We have to find profitable industry that other countries will find initially more difficult to emulate.

It would be interesting to do a follow-up question to ask respondents for examples of how they do take CSR into account. One advantage of legislation and independent assessment to confirm compliance is that it is fair to all companies.

Smart devices are likely to become increasingly important in future. I can understand why smart thermostats that can be controlled by a mobile phone are popular, but having read about reliability problems and being concerned about long term compatibility I bought a non-smart one that displays the room temperature and set temperature, similar to the one I had used for years in my previous home. I don’t think it’s likely to become obsolete any time soon.

I have mentioned the problem of smart TVs above, but it might be worth considering how long other smart devices are likely to work for when producing reviews.

Mine is important because I can set it to reach the temperatures I want during the day/night and I can forget about it. Additionally, it is portable and can be placed where the ambient temperature is an average for the house. I don’t need to control it remotely and am suspicious of the way this control works via the internet. Yesterday my router crashed -one minute there, the next not. I took the power supply out and replaced it and everything came back to normal. Control of things, using the router and WIFI might set everything to a default and not the settings I have chosen.

One of my main concerns about smart thermostats is they could stop working over the Christmas holidays, when I’m hundreds of miles away and there is a risk that pipes could freeze. If it gets really cold I can ring a neighbour and ask them to turn up the thermostat, but I cannot really expect them to sort out the router.

I agree with you that being able to move the thermostat round the house is useful. At present I just nudge mine up or down a bit when passing.

Brand environmental and corporate social responsibility credentials should be included in the reviews, absolutely, and if you give information about the cheapest price, you could also include info about who recycles what and if you have to pay for this? You could pay less for eg a fridge somewhere but have to fork out extra to have the old one lifted, so overall the price could be the same as somewhere else more expensive but who would recycle your old equipment.

(Related to this but probably the subject of another convo is this: links to league tables of local authorities and what they recycle would be useful too. In Edinburgh not every shop will recycle your old small electrical items for example, and if you don’t stay near a recycling centre the temptation is to just dump them in the landfill bins. Maybe recycling league tables would encourage local authorities to do better? 2019, and there is still stuff Edinburgh Council won’t recycle, or will make it difficult for us, drives me mad.)

In Which? News today is “Are Currys dishwashers any good?” and comparison with similar price-bracket alternatives. They conclude they are no good. However there is no mention of how long they might function, something anyone buying a dishwasher, and particularly a cheap one, should know to make a considered buying decision; let alone Which? supporting sustainability. Surely a criterion Which? needs to address? An initial way of getting a feel for likely durability is to have someone with a working knowledge of dishwashers take one apart and look at the quality of the components and the quality of the build.

A couple of years ago I reported a positive experience with Hotpoint/Whirlpool. My fridge/freezer had failed after just 3 years and it was diagnosed with blown (thermal) insulation. Out of guarantee and not repairable. They were easily persuaded it was defective, replaced it free of charge, added a 2 year warranty and John Lewis extended that to 5 years (Domestic and General), for a very small contribution from me, as I was concerned about its future reliability.

Back from hols Friday – fridge dead. 2 years 8 months old. Rang Hotpoint Monday lunchtime, man came lunchtime today, diagnosed a circuit board fault, had one on the van, gone in 30 mins leaving a working Fr/fr.

Yes, I’m disappointed it had a fault, but commend them for fixing it so quickly, pleased it was repairable (we need to be able to repair far more products economically), and I’ve still got 2 years+ cover left.

Would I buy another Hotpoint. Maybe, but first I’d go through the Which best buys to help make a choice – https://www.which.co.uk/reviews/fridge-freezers

Such a pain it had that fault but good to hear a good news story about good repair work!


Of course Which? can do more and they need to do it now.

You need to look at materials quality, durability, repairability, etc.

Make manufacturers print a stated life expectancy e.g. washing machine – 10,000 washes. If it breaks before then then they are requried to repair it, at no cost to the consumer. Dishwasher – 5,000 cycles. Car – 20 years or 250K miles.

Are modern engineers and designers so bad at their proffesion that they can only design and sell items with 12 month warrantys? Surely if you are proffesional engineer the aspiration is to make something that will last?

Vance Packards “The Waste Makers” was written in ~1960, and it identified all the issues we are now facing. As a champion of consumers Which? needs to become a champion of sustainbility and quality, and it needs to do it now!

My kids need this much as yours.

I am with you in spirit, daes0707, and I should like to see your proposals develop, but there are some practical difficulties where the use of an appliance is outside the manufacturer’s control. With a washing machine, for example, the extent to which the machine is loaded, the programmes set, whether or not it has been maintained correctly, and whether there has been any misuse, all have a bearing on durability.

The quality of materials used in equipment will have an environmental impact as well as cost implications. Unfortunately there has been a race to the bottom in appliance manufacture in order to produce more affordable machines. Unless there is an internationally set benchmark this will continue to be the case.

Some appliances, like refrigerators and freezers, enjoy a more passive life and are less prone to the whims of use so are much more conducive to your proposals.

Frequent changing of model design is a bugbear of mine, especially for purely cosmetic rather than functional reasons, as it affects the availability of spares.

I have advocated a minimum guarantee period of five years for products such as white goods. That would improve the standards of construction because without evidence of abuse, the retailer would have to pay for repairs during this period. That should ensure that most of us could look forward to products lasting considerably longer.

For products to last decades they will have to be maintained and repaired when necessary. Manufacturers often make this difficult. Parts might not be available and the move towards circuit boards and other integrated assemblies can mean products that cannot be economically repaired. For example, in most modern washing machines the bearings cannot be replaced without replacing the drum and tub as a unit. The change in design has cut down on manufacturing costs and in some cases (e.g. circuit boards) improved reliability but this has a major effect on repairability.

I’ve seen plenty of examples of what I consider poor design in products. For example, when I switch on my washing machine it will default to maximum spin speed for most programmes. That will just create more stress on the bearings, particularly with a heavy load. John mentions loading in his post. I now remember to lower the speed before starting the machine and it does an adequate job, and it’s quite.

Certainly a longer warranty – repair or replace – will focus the lower-quality cheaper manufacturers maybe on improving quality but they will factor in the cost of repairs for 5 years in the price. I want products built to work for at least 10 years; why should I have to think of buying a new major appliance every 5 years?

Economical repairs can be a design philosophy. There is no reason why replacing a circuit board – just one part of the whole appliance – should be prohibitively expensive. The one on my fridge freezer was a 10 minute job.

No reason not to have integrated drum and bearings – just use sufficiently robust quality components.

Quality of design, build, and components could be part of Which?’s reports if they used experts to dismantle machines as part of the assessment process, as well as accelerated testing.

We must also be fair when considering “life”. For some appliances, like washing machines, dishwashers, dryers the number of cycles/total duration of use is the correct measure whereas for a fridge, for example, in continuous use it might be years.

Some people might want, or can only afford, to pay less for a machine that they will use very little so we don’t want them priced out. We need to give a choice, but a fully- informed one.

We have manufacturers already producing long-lived appliances. It is not rocket science.

A by-product of all this might be the resurgance in appliance repairers. That would a good thing.

If an appliance is guaranteed for five years then the company cannot afford to pay for many repairs during this time. If the product is sufficiently durable for a low failure rate during the first five years, it’s likely that most of the appliances will last considerably longer.

Printer manufacturers often give an indication of what use their products are designed to cope with, for example the number of pages per month. The same could be done for white goods. It would help in deciding what is fair to the consumer and the retailer in cases of premature failure.

“No reason not to have integrated drum and bearings – just use sufficiently robust quality components.” It’s not that simple. Bearings will fail if water is forced past seals, for example if the machine is overloaded or too much detergent is used. Components fail even in expensive products and integrated assemblies can make products uneconomical to repair.

Manufacturers may not make spares available to independent repairers or the public. At least in the case of more popular makes/models, spares may be available from third party suppliers.

l don’t want an appliance to fail and have to be repaired in the first 5 years – its very inconvenient apart from the lack of sustainability. I want to buy an appliance that will last on the whole without attention. If it should fail I want ot to be economic to repair it. A guarantee/warranty should also be provided for protection in the first part of its life but that should not remove the need for producing durable products for those who want them.

There are manufacturers whose appliances do not fail, and whose bearings do last so not only can it be done, it is done. Good bearings and seals are standard in engineering.

Part of “sustainability” would require parts and servicing to be available through independent outlets (just as we have with cars).

We need to approach sustainability by constructive thinking, not assuming nothing can be changed. Just as we must approach plastic packaging waste, access to cash, with a “how can we do this” not “why we can’t”. I am sure a cooperative effort from Convo contributors can help provide the “how” and, hopefully, Which? will take this forward.

None of us want appliances that fail and have to be repaired, but periodic servicing is important. The previous owners of my home offered to remove the dishwasher, that ‘was no longer effective’ as the put it. It took about five minutes to remove the limescale from the jets on the spray arm. More recently, the dishwasher stopped working and that was easily sorted out by a bit of cleaning inside. That’s twice it has been reprieved. I’ve seen washing machines infested with mould because the owners have not bothered to do maintenance washes.

I believe that if products were properly maintained they would stand a better chance of having a longer trouble-free working life.

I agree. The “without attention” I mentioned in my comment referred to a repair. Low quality machines – poor motors, bearings, pumps, compressors for example – will still fail earlier than those built with decent quality components. Most require, and have no provision for, little or no routine servicing (other than, say, cleaning and removal of lint).

I wonder if Which? have any plans to look harder at the likely durability and build quality of appliances (large and small) when they report on them? Educating the consumer is one road to encouraging us to buy longer-lived appliances which, in the end, are likely to offer better value for money and be real “best buys”.

A minimum guarantee of five years would remove the low quality machines, as I said earlier. If people don’t want to spend much, there are plenty of secondhand machines available.

With expensive appliances the profit margin is likely to be higher and in some cases parts are only available to authorised agents. The best value for money may be mid-priced products, which are less likely to have unnecessary bells and whistles.

I’ve suggested before that Which? could gain useful information about reliability of white goods from field service engineers that repair all makes rather than a single brand. That would supplement information collected in surveys.

Electrical appliance insurance might be one way to get us to use appliances for longer – by getting them repaired instead of chucking them out when they have a problem. The government could promote this indirectly, but they don’t help when the tax on premiums (the IPT) is 20%. Why is it nearly twice as much as the tax on….pet insurance!!?