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!