Consumer tech goods company rewrites the recycling rules
Some decades ago, during the early, boom years of mass produced consumer appliances, the term 'built-in obsolescence' was introduced into everyday language.
It was used to describe the deliberate building of products to have a limited shelf life of useful operation. This was deemed necessary as markets began to saturate in terms of the distribution of television sets, washing machines, fridges and the like. How could a company survive if it produced goods that lasted forever? (A question Crocs should have asked themselves, maybe?).
A constant churn of these products was required, the companies claimed, so that consumers could benefit from innovations in design, operation and safety. And besides, well...landfills! And these days, this can be seen in the marketing spiel of aircons, washing machines, refrigerators which are categorized as 'eco-friendly' by virtue of the fact that they use less water or power'.
It was often quoted that the Volvo, the Swedish car maker, had perfected a design that could survive without breakdown or deterioration for 40 years and the only downside was that it cost slightly more than regular models...not bad considering the environment in which it was designed to operate. It had superior safety ratings to boot but these weren't sacrificed on the high altar of consumerism and were applied as standard to the cheaper, 'wearoutable' versions of the company's range. Needless to say, the company took the disposable route.
So this has been a manifestation on hardware for some time now. How about the ethereal but essential softwares that run everything? Well. The best examples (until more recently) would be the experience of the likes of Microsoft who have needed/decided to abandon various systems, softwares & products down the years to avoid the costly maintenance & support required as well as the extension of frameworks to ensure compatibility for it's legacy systems.
Of course, some software has just perished 'naturally' (company ceases to exist, is sold, shifts in company/product focus, introduction of superior technology in different format etc.) and left a myriad of devices and systems along with their accompanying hardware to rust.And this happens at a customer and consumer level!
However, what is worrying about the latest wave in this corporate direction is the growing number of instances where companies are deliberately, and in some cases, quite cynically embedding software that triggers obsolescence or redundancy after a specified time period or at the behest & control of the principal or where a side agreement or consumer compliance is required to ensure the satisfactory operation of said software or device i.e. as with a ink cartridge supply lock-in for printers.
It seems to be reaching the point, however, where consumer are now effectively renting the devices over an extended period and being forced to live with the prospect of paying out more at some pre-determined time, or undetermined in many cases, to buy supposedly upgraded products whether they are needed, wanted or not. As you can imagine, not every one is happy about this state of affairs!
The latest, and potentially most cynical, example of this behavior has been the Sonos Corporation that makes high-end speakers and sound systems. The company has recently announced that it will not longer support certain of these systems. All well and good you might think...at least they have provided a warning...it is probably for older systems etc...has been the mumbled response from many.
In fairness, these are valid points but the two underlying issues that have caused the biggest outcry have been the company's own sustainability policy and how this recent announcement plays out against that as well as the consumers rights concerns that are raised by such apparently cavalier actions and the impact on ownership rights i.e. these things should be known and highlighted at the outset.
Users that have shelled out thousands for smart speakers that still work aren't the news well, said one Twitter commentator...
I've been "investing" in @Sonos since 2007. Now they want to cripple my WHOLE Sonos ecosystem and obsolete the rest of my devices!
Do they really think a few years later I will now buy a whole new £3000+ system from them again?
Absolutely NOT! Never again!#boycottSonos
Sonos says owners of these legacy systems now have one of two options: they can simply keep using the product or they can trade them in and avail of a 30% discount on the purchase of a new Sonos system.
However, exercising the latter option triggers an immediatel 21 day countdown within the product that ends with the device being placed in recycle mode....i.e. 'bricked or zombiefied'. Products in recycle mode cannot be re-used, recycled or repurposed without Sonos' permission.
And this seems to create a wasteful outcome for a policy that seeks to minimize environmental impact.
"We feel it's the right decision to make recycling a condition of this offer, Taking your device to a local certified e-recycling facility is the most environmentally friendly means of disposal."Spokesperson for Sonos
You can also get a label and ship your bricked device back to Sonos but for whatever reason, selling or giving your older Sonos gear to someone else isn't an option under the policy. This is a strange pact that probably doesn't exist with any other major electronics manufacturer...yet!
Products now effectively have expiration dates of which consumers aren't being informed about at the time of purchase. There needs to be more transparency around obsolescence and action to address it's worst aspects.
Some companies, Samsung for instance, have looked at ways to toyed with efforts to re-root and reuse older smartphones. Others, like the now defunct fitness tracking company Pebble, released their source code publicly which allowed a community of users to give the product an extended life. And there are no end of networks and charities that will willingly take 'old tech' off the hands of former owners and enable it to reach deserving, needier groups and individuals.
However, sadly, many companies are more interested in selling the next round of products than spending money to make sure older products function for longer.
"This is something that these companies are just neglecting, Sonos is like the opening salvo. There will probably be a wave of these things that happen over the next couple years. And eventually, people are going to start being really upset about it."
Nathan Proctor, head of the USPIRG's Right to Repair Campaign
So whilst many companies and governments remain apathetic to the issue, consumers still have a voice and the ultimate weapons to hand......free will and disposable income! Use that power well, people!