Why whiteware is not green: an open letter

A tale of high laundry adventure, in which the washing machine dies and nobody emerges unscathed

John Bongard, Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director

John Journee, Chief Executive



A couple of weeks ago, the “Pride” of my laundry died. I went to buy a new one.

It was a Fisher & Paykel machine. Its computer board had failed twice, in about a year. The extra several hundred for a new machine seemed better spent now than a serial few hundred for, perhaps, annual servicing.

The extended warranty sales pitch went something like this. It was a refrain that I’d heard and bought before. There will hardly be a home shopper in the country who hasn’t heard this, or similar:

Fisher & Paykel appliances aren’t made in New Zealand any more, therefore, their quality can’t be guaranteed. A washing machine is a hard-working item. Their computer boards have an average life of three years or so, sometimes as little as one. They invariably fail; it’s “just one of those things”, a “feature” of these machines. Relative to the replacement cost of that part, $180 for an extended warranty is cheap.

I spoke to Noel Leeming’s store manager about disposal options. Absolutely, he assured me, my old machine could be collected and dumped at no inconvenience to myself; this was all part of the service.

Er … dumped? The machine was six years old, moderately used, and otherwise “as new”. I’d been thinking “recycled” or “refurbished”, and yet… it was hard to argue with his assertion that this is not economic, since that was why I was in the shop.

I almost walked out of the shop; I still almost wish I had.

Fisher & Paykel brands itself as iconic, and trades on that perception. Its core principles, it says, include integrity and care, for the environment and for customers. “ELBA by Fisher & Paykel” is the budget washing machine option, but a dependable option.

I was demonstrating brand loyalty to Fisher & Paykel. I expect Fisher & Paykel to reciprocate with the same loyalty, to its customers and its manifesto. The ordinary households, for which ELBA purports to be purpose-built, can’t lay their hands on hundreds of dollars on a regular, yet unpredictable, basis for servicing or replacement of a limited durability part. When the computer boards’ limitations are known -- indeed, identified as a “feature” up front -- it looks a lot like planned obsolescence, the antithesis of “care for the environment”.

Paul Brockett, Vice President Investor Relations Fisher & Paykel Appliances, disputed what I had been told about the incidence of computer board failure. He denied “planned” obsolescence. “Any computer board will fail eventually [he wrote] but our records indicate a very low failure rate of controller boards in New Zealand and certainly well above the average lifespan of the 3 years you are suggesting. I presume someone trying to sell you an extended warranty might try to persuade you with some ‘figures’ to back up his/her sell story, but this is certainly not the case.”

Poking about online, post-purchase, I did find recycling information. I was shopping in Masterton, which is in the Greater Wellington region, one of the few regions in which recycling is available. In both Wellington and Auckland, Fisher & Paykel hosts recycling days, where the public can drop off products free of charge or, for a small charge, can arrange to have them picked up. This service extends to imported opposition brands. The old products are stripped down and recycled. The last recycling day in Auckland kept 48 tonnes of scrap from landfills.

Brockett added the following further points: “Fisher & Paykel has for some 16 years recycled old products from the field, something that was instigated before it became savvy to do so … This is a ‘service’ offered by Fisher & Paykel that is run as a non profitable part of the business. No other whiteware appliance distributor/importer in New Zealand offers any type of recycling service.”

Of course, I was only poking about online and writing emails for the sake of this post. The average person would not do this, having been assured that dumping is what happens. Anywhere else in the country, dumping is probably exactly what happens. Recycling is better than dumping; building machines that last would be best. But I began to have an inkling that Fisher & Paykel, like me, had fallen victim to what was, overall, a fairly farcical purchase experience.

Some of the sales pitch was absurd, for instance: it’s irrelevant where the machine is manufactured. It could be Timbuktu; the Consumer Guarantees Act would still apply. A hard-working item needs be fit for its hard-working purpose.

The extended warranty in question was for five years. It’s uncertain whether the Consumer Guarantees Act could be invoked over that whole period; the warranty therefore saves people the inconvenience of having to argue their particular case. The salesperson was just doing her job, which, as she said, includes making customers aware of options, lest they complain later about incomplete advice. (Not to mention prudently wringing out an extra few bucks’ insurance, to set off against what would probably, in any event, in some if not all cases, be the retailer’s legal obligations.)

Whatever: the option was offered, I declined, and that’s all fine. However, over and above the misinformation about recycling, a number of other things said were not smart.

First, the blinkered focus on selling an extended warranty, at the expense of the machine, and Fisher & Paykel’s reputation - including thrusting the whole offshore-relocation thing back in people’s faces at point of purchase when I would otherwise have momentarily forgotten. Secondly, if the failure of these boards was indeed random, anywhere from one to five years, then from a practical perspective the chances would be no better with a new machine than getting the old one repaired.

That’s the point at which you almost lost the sale.

Browsing my local junk store last week, I found a colonial washboard. It was a hundred years old, in perfect working order. It makes you wonder about the nature of “progress”, really. It wouldn’t have lined anyone’s pocket, but the dent in my wallet would have been correspondingly small.


Claire Browning