Smart speaker maker Sonos takes heat for deliberately bricking older kit with 'Trade Up' plan

Infuriates customers by making useable systems into electronic waste

Sonos Play 1: getting new kit like this may mean bricking an older device
Sonos Play 1: getting new kit like this may mean bricking an older device

Soundbar and smart-speaker-flinger Sonos is starting the new year with the wrong kind of publicity.

Customers and netizens are protesting against its policy of deliberately rendering working systems unusable, which is bad for the environment as it sends devices prematurely to an electronic waste graveyard.

The policy is also hazardous for those who unknowingly purchase a disabled device on the second-hand market, or even for users who perhaps mistake "recycle" for "reset".

The culprit is Sonos's so-called "Trade Up Program" which gives customers a 30 per cent discount off a new device, provided they follow steps to place their existing hardware into "Recycle mode". Sonos has explained that "when you recycle an eligible Sonos product, you are choosing to permanently deactivate it. Once you confirm you'd like to recycle your product, the decision cannot be reversed." There is a 21-day countdown (giving you time to receive your shiny new hardware) and then it is useless, "even if the product has been reset to its factory settings."

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Sonos suggests taking the now useless gadget to a local e-waste recycling centre, or sending it back to Sonos, though it remarks that scrapping it locally is "more eco-friendly than shipping it to Sonos". In fact, agreeing either to return it or to use a "certified electronics recycler" is part of the terms and conditions, though the obvious question is how well this is enforced or whether customers even notice this detail when participating in the scheme.

The truth of course is that no recycling option is eco-friendly in comparison to someone continuing to enjoy the device doing what it does best, which is to play music. Even if a user is conscientious about finding an electronic waste recycling centre, there is a human and environmental cost involved, and not all parts can be recycled.

Sonos has posted on the subject of sustainability and has a "director of sustainability", Mark Heintz, making its "Trade Up" policy even harder to understand.

Why not allow these products to be resold or reused? Community manager Ryan S said: "While we're proud of how long our products last, we don't really want these old, second-hand products to be the first experience a new customer has with Sonos."

While this makes perfect business sense for Sonos, it is a weak rationale from an environmental perspective. Reactions like this one on Twitter are common. "I've bought and recommended my last Sonos product. Please change your practice, at the very least be honest about it and don't flash the sustainability card for something that's clearly not."

That said, audio products do typically last much longer than devices like smartphones or even PCs. Even with its controversial Trade Up policy, Sonos hardware is probably in use for longer than most consumer electronics, and if you combine that with the fact that it makes at least some effort to encourage responsible disposal, maybe the backlash is a wee bit overdone.

The truth is that there is an urgent need for the consumer electronics industry to take sustainability more seriously. Ever questioned, for instance, why tiny memory cards and other components are often packaged in huge blister packs of hard plastic that are challenging to open without self-injury? It is because marketing trumps sustainability every time, and this Sonos fuss is just another small example. ®

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