Consumer champions’ test standards that just won’t wash

At its annual general meeting today, the Consumers’ Association will be challenged by an Inside Croydon reader who reckons the charity needs to undergo some serious user testing of its own. PATRICK TAYLOR tells his story of how he started to doubt the reliability of Which?

VW bleedingVolkswagen: Car Manufacturer of the Year 2015. According to “consumer champions” Which?

Whoops.

Embarrassing for Which?, the brand name used by the Consumers’ Association. And also embarrassing for subscribers who may be wondering what is going on with the Which? Awards, the Which? Best Buys , and Which? Recommended Providers when such an endorsement can be issued and such glaring faults missed in tests and surveys over many years.

I have been a member of the Consumers’ Association for more than 30 years, and I am more than unhappy with Which? – I am angry.

Other members are also annoyed as trustees are paying out a multi-million-pound bonus pot for top executives, awarded despite some very poor decisions which have cost the charity millions.

So what has triggered the rage of this Kenley resident?

It was washing machines which did it.

Which? is one of the country’s most media-engaged charities, providing newspapers, radio stations and television programmes with a steady stream of surveys on consumer matters – such as the reliability of domestic appliances, such as washing machines – readily filling hours of easy airtime and millions of cheap column inches for hard-pressed broadcasters and journalists.

It was in September 2013 when reading the latest copy of Which? magazine that I decided that I should either give up my subscription or fight by standing as a candidate for the charity’s governing council.

What's your washing machine's top temperature? And would Which?

What’s your washing machine’s top temperature?

Washing machines are pretty simple devices, and nearly every family home will have one. But while reading that Which? article two years ago, I was struck by what seemed to be flaws in the research and editorial – which our membership fees – with some people spending more than £10 per month for the information and advice – are supposed to pay for.

Which? seemed to be quite relaxed that the 60°C wash setting on your machine may not actually mean that the water ever reaches 60°C, and in fact that washes may top-out at a maximum of just 43°C. Or that other machines peak at a temperature near 60°C for five minutes, and then cool down through the rest of the wash.

This seemed to me to be a pretty serious case of the public being misled by the manufacturers. My opinion was that if someone indicates the machine washes at 60°C, then that’s pretty much what it should be doing. But Which? did not seem fussed by this at all.

Which? was suggesting that washing at 60°C was really unnecessary in most cases and not necessarily effective hygienically. However, the article did mention they would speak to the environment department, DEFRA, about it, as the EU was involved.

Which? published this graph in their magazine two years ago. But the vital information about operating temperatures is hard to find in their reports and on the website

Which? published this graph in their magazine two years ago. But the vital information about operating temperatures is hard to find in their reports on individual machines on the website

According to the article, eight of 12 new machines tested never reached 60°C.

But Which? offered a couple of caveats which suggested that washing at 60°C was not essential, and that it was expensive to heat the water.

To me this seems absurd, and potentially dangerous. In our NHS we have nursing and ancillary staff washing their uniforms at home. To reduce the possibility of transferring contagious infections, these washing machine owners need to know that if they put their uniforms through a hot wash, they will be getting a hot wash. It is proven that an interaction between heat, detergent levels, rinses and agitation action is required to thoroughly clean clothing. And according to the NHS, the heat of the water really is important when washing uniforms.

The Department of Health released guidance in 2010 stating that uniforms should be washed at the highest temperature suitable for the fabric, and that a 10-minute wash at 60°C is sufficient to remove most microorganisms. Hygienic home laundering can also deal with allergens, bugs and mites. Killing bed bug eggs does require a 60°C wash.

And according to Allergy UK, “The washing machines which have our endorsement have passed testing and maintain 60° temperature for a minimum of 20 minutes, they are scientifically tested  and proven to do so.”

Of course, Which? is not responsible for the operation of various brands’ washing machines. But they are responsible for delivering reliable consumer journalism, providing clear and accurate information on the operation of washing machines, and the various other products which they test.

I made representations about the washing machines to Which?, and eventually to the Council of Trustees. Evidence from scholarly journals seemed unimportant to them and there has been absolutely no attempt by Which? to include this information on their website or subsequent articles, or provide warnings to their readers and members. On the Which? website, though, you can conveniently click through from washing machine reviews to a shopping site, and all the while remain oblivious to the differences in the abilities of the washing machines to do hygienic 60°C washes.

According to research published this year by Simon de Montfort University, nearly half of the 265 nurses that they surveyed at four hospitals were not washing their uniforms at the NHS-recommended 60°C .

In their report based on this research, the academics not unreasonably suggest that the nurses’ uniforms should again be dealt with at a hospital laundry to ensure hygiene standards are met. But what of other occupations, such as farmers, carers working in nursing homes, and people looking after family members, where hygienic washing of clothes is also very important?

WhichAn organisation such as Which?, with all those member subscriptions, has the financial clout to commission more thorough laboratory testing of products, to help protect consumers. It is what many who subscribe to its research expect for their money.

Does Beko’s maximum water temperature of 60°C and 30 minutes at more than 55°C sound more reassuring than Hoover topping out at 43°C? Or Hotpoint at 51°C?

Stiftung Warentest in Germany highlighted this problem eight months before Which? did. They continue to test, and recently found one machine operating at just 27°C.

The crucial difference is that they unlike Which?, Stiftung Warentest is reporting on it now and not relying on their subscribers stumbling across the problem in a list of advice articles. Endeavouring to find out which machines do provide a true 60°C wash is nigh impossible for even the most web-savvy of individuals. Two highly rated online sellers, AO and John Lewis, were unable to provide any information at all on hygienic washing machines, even though I mentioned to them the Which? article.

The NHS, and the MRSA Society, and most people would probably find it very useful if the true wash temperatures and length of time were provided.

I realise that it has cost implications for Which?, to pay for extra tests and to provide accompanying graphics and journalism, but as Europe’s largest consumer organisation, they really ought to be able to afford to do the job properly for their subscribers.

Instead, what they do is list more than 400 washing machines on their website. Which? says “Washing machine reviews you can trust. Nobody goes to the same lengths that we do when testing washing machines.”

I dispute the intent of the statement, as other organisations go further. Which? washing machine testing seems lightweight compared to the Stiftung Warentest, who run washing machines for six months non-stop to equate to a service life of nine years. Stiftung Warentest is reputed to be the third-most trusted body in Germany. The German public is said to trust only family and the church more.

Which? is reported to have 1 million subscribers to its magazine. Which? offers consumers a range of services, and subscription prices, from its gardening magazine at £55 per year, right up to £129 per year for those who bundle together Which? magazine, online access and use of the Which? legal services.

I am one of the 30,000 people on a massive panel of consumers who answer Which? surveys. It’s these surveys which inform much of the Which? research. Yet routinely, and I’ve been noting this throughout my membership, their surveys never ask whether the respondent has actually used the piece of equipment being surveyed.

This is significant. If you ask me if I have a strimmer or a garden shredder, and have I had a problem with them (as the Which? surveys ask), I will truthfully answer the questions “Yes” and then “No”. If you asked me if I had used them in the last five years (which Which? surveys rarely ask), I would answer that I have not. But to not ask that usage question renders the survey virtually useless.

In November 2014 I completed a Which? survey which broke the mould, as it did ask many, many questions on sewing machines – including usage. I was impressed. In April, I saw that the Which? section on sewing machines slightly tweaked, along with the message that Which? is no longer testing sewing machines.

There is also the problem of products recommended as Which? Best Buys, which safely navigate the Which?-commissioned testing, but fail badly once let loose for normal usage by the British public.

Which? don't appear to read the feedback on their tests that they get from their own members

Which? don’t appear to read the feedback on their tests that they get from their own members

Online reviews, apparently unmoderated, cannot always be entirely reliable for reasons of impartiality and objectivity. But increasingly in our digital age, consumers are using online reviews – of restaurants, B&Bs, cars, washing machines – to inform our purchasing judgements.

And when those reviews are on the website of a respected subscription consumer organisation, then those consumer experiences can probably be relied upon more than most. So if you have 29 Which? subscribers saying a Logiks steamer is a certain Worst Buy, as it fails within a year, you may well question how Which? came to give this same steamer their important Best Buy accolade in the first place. Had they tested it adequately?

Indeed, since Which? subscribers paying around £100 a year are providing this valuable feedback on a product’s reliability and performance, you might think that Which? might look into their Best Buy status and respond. But does it happen? Hardly ever.

If we had plenty of other testing bodies, then this would not be a problem, but Which? grew and prospered on the fact that it was the reliable place to turn to when buying items. It dominates the marketplace and if we find that these days the Best Buy logo is generating cash for the charity, then I would suggest that it has to be very clear on the extent and limitations of its testing, and it ought to take the long-term testing provided by its subscribers seriously.

Inside Croydon contacted Which? to ask them how they come to choose their Best Buys. They told us: “Which? Best Buys are only awarded to those products that score the highest marks in our independent, rigorous and extensive testing. Our test programmes, put together by expert scientific advisers, compare every aspect of a product’s performance and specification, while comprehensive reliability surveys ensure that only products with acceptable brand reliability are recommended.

“However, owners’ views also shape our testing and we investigate negative comments on our Best Buys. On occasion we have withdrawn the recommendation where the weight of evidence has been significant.”

If Which? can make VW its car manufacturer of the year in 2015, how reliable is it testing of cars and other products?

If Which? can make VW its car manufacturer of the year in 2015, how reliable is its testing of cars and other products?

Because it is so laughable, we also asked Which? to explain how they came to recommend Volkswagen as their car manufacturer of the year, when so many of their vehicles have obviously not been operating according to the manufacturer’s emission performance claims, in one of the biggest industrial scandals for years.

Which? told Inside Croydon: “The Which? Awards recognise businesses across a wide range of different sectors, and in order to stand out from the crowd they must perform well in our lab tests, consistently produce Best Buy products and achieve great reliability scores throughout the year. Prior to the Which? Awards 2015, we tested three of Volkswagen’s new cars, with the brand being ranked top across the large, MPV and electric car categories, as well as scoring above average for customer satisfaction in our annual car survey.” So that’s alright then.

And we asked them to explain how they conduct their tests of washing machines. And they sent us a link to their website, to a page which provides few details about their testing process, but does offer visitors the chance to pay £1 to sign-up for a Which? report, and so provide their details for a regular direct debit…

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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1 Response to Consumer champions’ test standards that just won’t wash

  1. Like Patrick Taylor, I have been a member of “Which?” since its inception.

    I joined as a young teacher who had to watch every penny and found it, initially, incredibly useful and helpful.

    Its evolution from a crusading outsider into a more and more complacent member of the establishment has been fascinating. It now seems to be as much imbued with a sense of its own importance and power as it does by any drive to really support consumers. Much of its activity is concerned with lightweight surveys of its members, surveys which are clearly designed as much to keep members involved and to give them a sense of participation as they are designed to gather information.

    Another large part of its current activity is the launching of ineffective and often puerile petitions, most of which are dismissed by recipients with the immortal words of Mandy Rice Davis : “Well,they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

    More and more, the council of CA is composed of high level academics and business folks and less and less of ground-level consumers. It now really no longer listens to its members but ploughs on, reviewing and re-reviewing the same old things, dumbing down its monthly publication which is now substantially more garish illustration than it is text and seeing itself with an almost saintly mission to save the voteless minions.

    Sure it has done some great things in the past and has helped change the customer/provider interface forever….but now it seems to me to be bloated, senescent and complacent.

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