Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
Late last week, Sonos was called out on Twitter by Devin Wilson for its practices around sustainability. The company drew particular attention for a “Recycle Mode” software feature that, once activated, begins a countdown that eventually renders older Sonos devices basically inoperable. Recycle Mode is part of the trade-up program that Sonos announced back in October, which lets customers get a discount on newer Sonos speakers like the One, Beam, or the Port that Nilay just reviewed.
It works like this: you check if one of your Sonos gadgets is eligible for the trade-up promo. Then you confirm in the Sonos app that you’d like to “trade” your current device toward a new one. Sonos instantly grants you a 30 percent discount, and then automatically starts a 21-day countdown before your old device goes into Recycle Mode (emphasis mine):
Recycle Mode is a state your device enters 21 days after recycling confirmation in the Sonos app. In Recycle Mode, all data is erased and the device is permanently deactivated so you can safely and securely dispose of it. Once a device is in Recycle Mode, it cannot be reactivated.
Why does trading up require customers to permanently brick a functional product? Therein lies the controversy. The 30 percent discount is directly tied to the demise of a piece of hardware. For Sonos, this process seems less about “trading up” and more about ditching your old device and clearing room for a new one.
“We feel it’s the right decision to make recycling a condition of this offer,” Sonos says on the trade-up program’s FAQ page. “Taking your device to a local certified e-recycling facility is the most environmentally friendly means of disposal.” You can also get a label and ship your bricked device back to Sonos if there are no good recycling options nearby.
But for some reason, selling or giving your aging Sonos gear to someone else isn’t an option under the program. This is a strange pact that doesn’t really exist with any other major electronics manufacturer. Yes, iPhones can be secured with activation lock (and Android has its own equivalent), but there’s always a way back from that state if you know the password.
I reached out to Sonos for comment and an explanation for why Recycle Mode is the equivalent of hitting a kill switch. It makes perfect sense to wipe user data from a device, but a factory reset would accomplish the same end result and preserve the possibility of reuse.
Someone recycled five of these Sonos Play:5 speakers. They’re worth $250 each, used, and these are in good condition. They could easily be reused.Unfortunately, the person who recycled them put them in recycle mode. pic.twitter.com/TNx2MEOWqu— ralph waldo cybersyn (@atomicthumbs) December 27, 2019
From Sonos’ perspective, the company is concerned about very old devices finding their way to new owners who might not realize that the products aren’t cut out for some aspects of the modern Sonos experience. Here’s what Sonos told me:
The reality is that these older products lack the processing power and memory to support modern Sonos experiences. Over time, technology will progress in ways these products are not able to accommodate. For some owners, these new features aren’t important. Accordingly, they may choose not to participate in the Trade Up program.
But for other owners, having modern Sonos devices capable of delivering these new experiences is important. So the Trade Up program is an affordable path for these owners to upgrade. For those that choose to trade-up to new products, we felt that the most responsible action was not to reintroduce them to new customers that may not have the context of them as 10+ year old products, and that also may not be able to deliver the Sonos experience they expected.
That last sentence is the key bit. Sonos supports products for a long time; software updates continue for “a minimum of five years after a product is no longer sold.” For context, all of the products that are part of the trade-up program were introduced over 10 years ago. They include:
The original Sonos Play:5
ZonePlayer 80 (ZP80), ZonePlayer 90 (ZP90), ZonePlayer 100 (ZP100), ZonePlayer 120 (ZP120)
So the company wants to get these products off the field and continue ushering in a new era of voice assistant support and other enhancements like AirPlay 2. Sonos thinks that some owners who know the limitations of these decade-old products and don’t care about the latest features will hold onto them for as long as they remain functional. All of that makes total sense.
But for those who do want to take advantage of the trade-up program, something still feels very off about having to render these products inoperable in exchange for a discount on the current Sonos lineup.
On its website, Sonos makes it sound like there’s no going back once Recycle Mode is initiated, warning that “once started, this process cannot be undone or reversed.” Customers even have the option of triggering it before the 21-day timer winds down to immediately and forever deactivate a device.
However, Sonos tells me its customer support team can help those who inadvertently activate Recycle Mode “on an individual basis.” There’s obviously a server-side component to this, since devices are prevented from being added to Sonos systems after meeting their Recycle Mode fate, and it sounds like that part can be undone in certain cases.
But Recycle Mode in its current implementation is something that Sonos should revisit and rethink with a nod to reuse. There comes a time when every gadget maker throws in the towel and can’t support a device any longer. Sonos does a better job than most at making purchases last. The company says “92 percent of the products we’ve ever sold — even those launched more than 10 years ago — are still in use today.” With that track record, I’m sure some customers would prefer finding a niche role for an old Play:5 or Connect instead of having them cease working for no good reason.
“We take our responsibility to the environment seriously, and are committed to continuously improving our sustainability practices,” a Sonos spokesperson told The Verge by email.