More and more consumers and manufacturers are embracing the idea of refurbished products. But is it really better for the planet and your wallet?
They can do a lot, but they are not sustainable: the smartphones, smartwatches and other gadgets that make our daily lives easier. Thanks to all the advanced gadgets, these products require increasingly scarce and harmful raw materials. Add to that a relatively short lifespan (an average smartphone is replaced after two to three years) and the calculation is quickly made.
The good news is that there are ways to limit that resource consumption. Of course you can banish the smartphone and opt for a carrier pigeon or a dumbphone, an old-fashioned cell phone with which you can do little more than call and text. But those who do not want to compromise on ‘comfort’ can also opt for a refurbished copy. A choice that extends the lifespan of the existing model and can therefore – depending on the product – result in a CO2 reduction of between 50 and 80 percent.
Sounds good, but how reliable is such a reconditioned product actually? And what should you pay attention to when purchasing?
Warranty and reliability
Anyone who thinks that refurbished is just a trendy, English marketing term is wrong. “The big difference with second-hand is that the refurbished gadgets are checked and repaired where necessary,” explains professor of sustainable consumer behavior Ruth Mugge of TU Delft. Sometimes parts are replaced. The battery, for example, which often deteriorates over the years. “With a new battery they can often last for years. This means that many people see refurbished products as a more reliable alternative to second-hand.”
It helps that many sellers offer years of warranties on their remanufactured products. Something you rarely see at a thrift store or marketplace seller. “This gives consumers more certainty that they are purchasing a working product,” Mugge explains. Although she says it is still good to pay attention to who you do business with. For example, sellers’ warranty periods vary widely.
Anyone who chooses refurbished will also have to make concessions here and there. Impressing your friends with the latest, shiny smartphone may be difficult, because refurbished stores often only sell them some time after launch. The idea that a device already has scratches can also turn buyers off. Mugge: “People associate scratches with the idea that the previous owner was not very careful with the product and that there may be even more damage on the inside.”
Fortunately, almost all sellers offer – in addition to quality control – insight into the external condition of a product. In most cases, the customer can even choose from different ‘beauty levels’. Anyone who opts for ‘as new’ will have to pay a bit more money than someone who settles for a ‘visibly used’ phone.
‘Like new’ or not, refurbished gadgets are always cheaper than the new one. However, it is more difficult to estimate whether it is really a good deal. It is difficult to compare prices because they depend on the condition of the product. In addition, some online shops compare refurbished prices with the original sales prices. The benefit may seem great, but the current retail price is sometimes much lower. According to the Dutch Consumers’ Association, it is therefore worthwhile to make your own price comparison.
The association itself conducted a price comparison study at the end of last year. It showed that refurbished iPhones are on average about 40 percent cheaper. Quite a nice discount on products that cost many hundreds of euros.
Yet a recent survey by the same association showed that 66 percent of consumers without a refurbished smartphone would certainly not buy one in the future. In most cases because they have little confidence in the quality of the products. And that is a shame, says Professor Mugge, who calls a transition to more reuse essential. “We find it very normal to buy a reconditioned car or bicycle. Why doesn’t that apply to a refurbished phone?”
Not only consumers, but also producers have a major role in this transition. “We have to produce differently and make all parts replaceable,” says Mugge. “Consider headphones, for example. Many people find a second-hand copy dirty. If the ear cushions are easily replaceable, that objection disappears.” Of course, new ear cushions also have an environmental impact. “But producing all digital components is comparatively much more polluting.”
This insight also seems to come from producers. For example, Samsung and Apple now also sell refurbished products themselves in some countries. And manufacturers such as Philips also give other electronic products a second chance, such as shavers and irons. A trend that will grow now that many consumers have less to spend due to high inflation and attention to sustainability is increasing.
Although there is an even cheaper and greener option: using our current gadgets for longer. Mugge: “We have to get rid of the idea that we need the latest model every few years.”