/ Sustainability

Introducing our Eco Buy commitment

Last week we announced our commitment to sustainability. As a part of that commitment, we’ve launched a new Eco Buy label – here’s everything you need to know.

David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II seemed to change the conversation overnight for many; pictures of mind boggling swathes of plastic waste polluting our oceans was a trigger to start thinking about sustainability and the environment with a greater sense of urgency.

We’ve always been proud of our Best Buy recommendations and confident that you’re going to get a great product that does the job, but we know from asking the questions that our members wanted something extra.

Research with members showed that sustainability was at the forefront of their minds. This has directly led to an uptick in our work on plastic waste, recycling, and food waste and a swathe of popular features in the magazine.

It also led to the first steps in building the Eco Buy recommendation.

Which sustainability issues matter the most?

We asked members what mattered most when they considered products and sustainability and, overwhelmingly, longevity, energy use and repairability came out top.

Longevity came as no surprise. Amazingly, the average washing machine is thrown away after less than six and half years, but thanks to our new survey analysis methodology, we know that machines from the best brands with proven records can last more than 20 years.

Likewise the frustration we hear from members on their struggles to get products repaired is palpable.

Maddeningly unhelpful design decisions, such as sealing units and making repair access virtually impossible, is one of many complaints.

For the categories where we have kicked off Eco Buys, we know that repairing makes sense when measured against the environmental impact of buying a new model.

Energy efficiency can be vastly different between the best and worst too – an efficient dishwasher will cost half as much to run as an inefficient model.   

All these elements are rolled together to establish what does and doesn’t make the Eco Buy cut.

We also take core performance into account: it doesn’t matter how easy a dishwasher is to fix, how efficient it is, or how long it might last – if it’s no good at washing dishes we know that will just leave you frustrated and, ironically, with a product on the scrapheap long before its time.

Where next for Eco Buys?

The testing team is busy assessing more categories for the Eco Buy treatment, with both large and small domestic appliances leading the list. Cars are a potential next step.

We are also working with our international partners – other consumer organisations across Europe – to figure out how much further we can go.

Life Cycle analysis is something of a holy grail – assessing the complete environmental impact of a product through creation, distribution, use and disposal.

We know such data can reveal startling disparities in how different product categories impact the environment, but it also happens to be incredibly expensive – that’s why working with consumer organisations around the world really is a must. 

We don’t just expect to influence product design through our reviews. Our policy team has been busy too, using our test and survey data to influence and feed into government consultations on eco design, energy labelling, the availability of spare parts and the longevity, or built-in obsolescence, of many digital products.

You can read our commitment to sustainability’s three key areas of focus here.

Which sustainability issues matter most to you? How would you like to see our progress in this area continue?

Let me know in the comments.

Comments

Durability and economic repairability are the key issues for me. I want to know how long a product is expected or declared to last before a fault that stops it working, in time or cycles depending on the product. I want to know how much a common repair would cost and for how long spares remain available from when the model is withdrawn.

Unless such products are markedly less efficient – energy or water use for example – then providing I know the data it is not the top priority.

For software-dependent devices I want to know how long they will be supported with software and security updates from when they are last sold.

I am ambivalent about cheap products because they have their place – for people quite unable to afford the better ones, for people who use them rarely, for example – but I would want a manufacturer to still declare their minimum life and backed up with support through a warranty.

Durability is a real issue for me and we need data given for different appliances and products, at different price points, that tells us what is reasonable to expect and where a lack of durability claim under the Consumer Rights Act can be judged valid and to what extent.

Thanks for this Convo, Mike. It is very encouraging to see sustainability on the agenda for Which?

My biggest concern is the increasing number of smart products on sale and given good ratings by Which? I fear that there could be drawbacks such as loss of functionality or security risks. Already it seems impossible to buy a TV that will not retain working apps for more than a few years.

Which? has already drawn attention to smart products with security problems but it would be helpful if this and the possible loss of functionality could be assessed before recommending products as ‘Best Buys’.

@Wavechange – Well said!

SONOS is a case in point. I have a heavy “investment” in the original range of SONOS speakers. SONOS have introduced a new App for their latest generation of speakers, which is not compatible, and have also announced there will be no further enhancement or fixes of the original SONOS 1 App.

Which? ran an article earlier this year: “Has your Sonos speaker stopped working with an old Apple or Android device?

https://www.which.co.uk/news/2020/01/has-your-sonos-speaker-stopped-working-with-an-old-apple-or-android-device/

However, Which? seems to suggest that the problem is with older smartphones and is largely apologetic about the SONOS stance. I have the very latest Samsung S10, but my sound system is also deemed to be obsolete by SONOS, and I have been offered a 30% discount to trade it in. Sure, SONOS will “recycle” my old products, so I don’t have feelings of guilt as well as ligher pockets, but what about the energy wasted in manufacturing, shipping, collection, and all those tricky-to-recyle plastic bits and packaging? How do we recover any of that?

Any good software developer knows that there is no need to “fork” software development, to make a version obsolete. If there are features in the new SONOS range that cannot be supported on the original devices, you simply “grey out” those options. This is built in obsolecense for marketing reasons, pure and simple.

Come on Which? Why are you still recommending SONOS speakers as “Best Buys”, with no hint of the short lifespan of these products?

Thanks very much for that link, Em. This information could be helpful to anyone who is interested in their rights as a consumer. To quote from it:

“What are my consumer rights?
At the point of purchase, any manufacturer should make it clear that future updates could mean the device is no longer compatible with the app, especially since the app is needed for the device to work.

When the app upgrade is made available, there should be good communication and transparency. If there’s no transparency, the product isn’t as described. Sonos said it has sent four in-app messages communicating to Sonos users that they need to upgrade the iOS on their controller device, otherwise it will not support future Sonos updates.

If, for any reason, you still feel that your speakers are no longer fit for purpose, there may be actions you could take under the Consumer Rights act.

When you buy a product that’s designed to work with an app, it should be of satisfactory quality, fit for a particular purpose and as described by the seller. For more information on your rights, based on the length of time you’ve owned the product, see What are my rights when the digital element of my smart device stops working?” [See the full article for links]

I agree with your comments about Sonos. Their products are not cheap. Microsoft is not my favourite company but it does publish how long its operating systems and other software will be supported for.

This is another example of “lack of reasonable durability” that is covered by the Consumer Rights Act. We should, I believe, be pursuing this contract condition to ensure consumers are not short changed. Unfortunately the CRA only gives protection for 6 years (5 Scotland).

I do not think it acceptable that a manufacturer should simply state that a product may stop working at some undefined time in the future through lack of continuing support. They should be required to declare a minimum supported life from when the product is finally withdrawn from sale (so late purchasers are not disadvantaged. We see, for example, that you may only get a 2 year life out of a new Samsung phone before security updates cease and it becomes unsuitable for certain important applications that most people need and buy for.

Here is a photo of a friend’s phone, which was accidentally dropped on crazy paving with the case open, yesterday afternoon. The screen now looks like crazy paving:

This phone is six years old and although it no longer runs the latest operating system, it is still receiving security updates. The owner had planned to replace the phone with a new one after Christmas, but that has been brought forward because the smashed screen has made it difficult to use. I suggested buying a recent model to maximise the length of support and that had already been decided.

It would be useful if Which? reports on phones pointed out that some brands offer longer support than others and that to maximise the length of support it is best to buy a recently introduced model.

Samsung and other smartphone copied Apple in producing phones with built-in batteries that are difficult to replace – not very eco.

Thankfully Apple has extended the period that they support phones etc. https://www.macworld.co.uk/news/how-long-apple-support-3795013/ Hopefully other phone manufacturers will follow.

Fairphone phones are modular, making it easy to replace the battery and perform upgrades. They tick most of the right boxes on Ethical Consumer: https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/technology/shopping-guide/mobile-phones

It would be interesting to know if Which? will make use of information from Ethical Consumer.

I have a Miele washing machine that is badged ‘Eco’ presumably because it is supposed to use less water and electricity than other models. Like many modern washing machines it does not rinse very well. There is no rinse and spin cycle so I have to put it on again for a short wash cycle to complete the task.

That’s not very ‘Eco’, is it?

Prompted by Em’s comment about Sonos speakers I turned up this article about smart speakers: https://www.which.co.uk/reviews/wireless-and-bluetooth-speakers/article/how-to-buy-the-best-smart-speaker-aW6Np0f72T5W

If I was looking for smart speakers I would want to know how long they would continue to be useful and if there was a significant difference between makes and models. Maybe Which? will provide this information in future.

This is good news. However, I have often thought some products get best buy status just because they are cheap.

I hope ECO credentials don’t give products an unwarranted boost in the ratings when they don’t perform satisfactorily.

Are stars out of 5 ever going to be replaced by meaningful test results?

Kat Smith says:
9 December 2020

Hi Mike, great to see you guys are adding Eco Buy. Another area that I think would be really important to improve is Which?’s lack of information for reef safe sunscreen. I was amazed this year when I looked at your sunscreen reviews that none of them mentioned anything about being reef safe, even though it has now been proven by the industry that traditional sunscreen is extremely damaging to reefs. Now that many brands offer reef safe alternatives I think it would be very beneficial for Which? to address this issue and raise awareness. Thanks!

Which? leading the consumer conversation on sustainability is a good start, but how about leading the action itself? Compostable magazine wrapping is good; what about ditching the mag completely? Mine goes straight in the (recycling) bin, as all content is available online. Producing the magazine and wrap use unnecessary energy, whatever they are made from. Small steps, but take the lead and others follow.

Any advice/campaigns about removing “not currently recycled” stamps from packaging and pushing all (necessary) packaging to the recyclable would be very useful, too.

Peter Hudson says:
10 December 2020

I find the hypocrisy of Which annoying.
You constantly give Best Buy awards to products which cannot be economically repaired- even annoying your chairman.
My own examples: Best Buys??
Stihl petrol strimmer Cost £129 -replacement carburettor £120.

Miele Vacuum cleaner.Cost £95 -Fixed repair charge £96.

Also Dapol model rail loco £83 fixed repair charge. Cost(Hattons) £83.60 post free.

Peter Hudson

Hi Peter – I would love Which? to provide us with information about products which can be repaired economically but there are various challenges. It will be easier when ‘Right to Repair’ legislation is in place making it a requirement to make spare parts and information available. At present some manufacturers are fighting to stop these items becoming available to the public.

Which? won’t give any cordless vacuum cleaner a BB rating unless it has a user replaceable battery, which is a step in the right direction. It’s harder with smartphones where no current model (at least of the main brands) allows users to slot in a new battery and the manufacturer may not supply spares to the public. Perhaps it would help if none of these smartphones was given BB status but I suspect that Which? would receive complaints from members who don’t feel as strongly about sustainability as we do.

The high cost of Stihl spares is well known, so cheaper third party carburettors have become available, though the quality is not reckoned to be very good. I don’t know what if anything could be done to persuade the manufacturer to offer more affordable parts. With small engines it is best to run the carburettor dry before storage. Petrol from filling stations contains ethanol and this is more prone to causing blockages, so it is best to use ethanol-free petrol or two-stroke mix from a specialist dealer.

I’m not sure where you found a Miele vac for £95 but their spares can be very expensive and may not be available to the public. I did not appreciate that they have a standard repair charge.

If we skip the toy trains (since the Which? testers are probably not allowed to have fun), which petrol strimmer and vacuum cleaner would you nominate, Peter? I could live without best buys and just look at the figures for different aspects of performance but many seem to value BB classifications.

Oldboy says:
15 December 2020

Hi Lynda Jane you are so right we just throw so much away things must change.

Lynda Jane says:
11 December 2020

I find it very odd to receive an e-mail from Which? about sustainability, in which they go on at great length about recycling coffee pods. Which? shouldn’t even be recommending machines which use coffee pods, if they genuinely want us to live sustainably. We’ve never used them: we used to have espresso machines but, due to the hard water here and even though we descaled regularly, we found the machines didn’t last. We now make our daily cappucino using a stove-top espresso pot and a hand-pumped milk frother. Now that’s what I call sustainable.

I’d like to see Which? championing user-replaceable batteries in rechargeable equipment. It would be ideal if all such appliances were forced by law to have such batteries in them. We’ve just discovered that razors now seem to be following printers, in that the companies aren’t selling the razor, they’re selling the spares. My husband’s razor uses replacement cutters that cost about £20 (he needs to change them about every 9 months) and, now that the batteries in the razor seem to be on their last legs, he’s investigated getting new batteries. Yes, you can replace them yourself, using a tortuous YouTube instructional video, but they cost £8-odd each and you need two. Goodness knows how much the manufacturer would charge to replace them. At the moment, everyone is doing offers on a new razor – £33. And for that you’ll be getting a new cutter and two new batteries. Guess which option we’ll be taking.

Hi, I’m pretty late to this conversion but just re-joined Which specifically because I want to buy a new fridge freezer. Sustainability is important to me, and I am struggling to reconcile the Which Eco-Buy badge with the current EU energy efficiency rating system. I found three models that fit my requirements and which are widely available with an EU efficiency rating of C, but none have the ‘Eco-Buy’ rating on Which. Two were Bosch, one Samsung, so I’d assume the brands should have met the reliability requirement, according to Which’s rankings.
When I did look into the models with the ‘Eco-Buy’ ratings, however, they were scoring lower on the EU rankings – mostly cat Ds and the Bosch model they did give the badge to (the second most recently reviewed) was a cat E (Bosch Serie 4 KGN39VWEAG).
What’s going on here? Are the EU ratings using criteria very different to Which when measuring efficiency? Or is it that Which’s energy-efficiency measures are setting their standards too low for modern applicances? If this has been discussed elsewhere, grateful for a pointer as I would really like to understand.