Built to break: Watch out for this environmentally destructive practice
Wahoo Fitness make green claims on their website, but continually replacing a faulty heart monitor shows a disregard for sustainability.
Riding a bike up Dyer’s Pass in Canterbury’s Port Hills it can feel like your heart is going to beat out of your chest, but following a ride in April 2022 I knew that there was something badly wrong, either with my heart, or the device I used to measure it.
Between April 2018 and November 2021, I’d recorded just about every kilometre and every heartbeat of every bike ride. I’d been using a trusty heart rate monitor made by Garmin, an American multinational company that specialises in GPS technology and tracking for sports and fitness. Sadly, after thousands of kilometres it gave up the ghost, leaving me with a broken heart … rate monitor.
With Christmas around the corner, I used diplomatic channels to let my partner’s family know that the device had broken and that it would be a good Secret Santa present. The message was duly received, and a new heart rate monitor was waiting under the tree on Christmas morning.
The first heart rate monitor
I got a Tickr heart rate monitor from an American company called Wahoo. Promotional materials for the product say that it “accurately tracks your heart rate and calorie burn”, and that it offers an “easy and reliable way to connect heart rate to your favourite training apps”.
And this is really all you ask for from a heart rate monitor.
It doesn’t have a screen, it doesn’t make you ride faster, and it doesn’t look cool. It just quietly and reliably transmits data from your chest to a small screen on your handlebars. Unlike a new bike or a pair of sunglasses, it’s not something you daydream about replacing or upgrading.
That’s the theory anyway.
Fast forward to April 2022, and following a ride, I noticed that the data from my heart rate monitor was off the charts. On a typical two-hour ride, I might have an average heart rate of 150 beats per minute (bpm). The highest figure I’d ever seen was around 185 bpm, leaving me gasping for breath. According to my heart rate monitor, over the past two hours I’d averaged 213 bpm, with a maximum of 225 bpm, without noticing anything unusual.
I’m not a cardiologist, but looking at the data from two similar rides, I knew I was seriously ill, or the device was broken. Some research showed me I wasn’t alone in having this experience with a Wahoo device.
“Wahoo Tickr…are they just crap?” asks Reddit forum
With the heart rate monitor just four months old and protected by a one-year warranty, I emailed Wahoo to see what they could do. I explained that I didn’t have the receipt as it was a gift and was relieved when Wahoo’s representative asked for my address and told me a new device – this time a Wahoo Tickr X – would be in the mail.
Days later, the Tickr X arrived, and I was delighted by the ease of getting a replacement.
But within days, the new heart rate monitor had broken, with a flimsy piece of plastic allowing moisture to flood the battery enclosure.
Once again, Wahoo was very sorry and quickly arranged another replacement device. Days later, my third Wahoo heart rate monitor in the space of 5 months arrived.
And I’m not alone in this experience.
One thread on the forum hosting site Reddit asks, “Wahoo Tickr – are they just crap?," and while many people report having had no issues, they are outnumbered by those who have had problems.
Often users had the repeated issues with heart rate monitors, which Wahoo always replaced. We can see this in the Tickr X reviews on Wahoo’s webpage, with users reporting faulty battery enclosures, inaccurate readings and multiple replacements.
Environmentally destructive business practice
There’s an obvious pattern in the Tickr X comments. These products regularly break in various ways and are readily replaced by Wahoo. Users praise Wahoo’s customer service for removing the stress and hassle that can come with faulty devices; however, they also criticise Wahoo for producing devices which repeatedly fail.
Heart rate monitor three was built of slightly stronger stuff, but it stopped working after just over 12 months. With the device outside its warranty I didn’t expect a replacement, but after three faulty products in 18 months, I gave Wahoo a piece of my mind.
“This is the third faulty Wahoo heart rate monitor I've had in the last 18 months. It looks like I'm about two weeks outside its warranty so I’m not expecting a new product, but honestly, what are you doing pumping rubbish plastic into the world like this? These products are so poorly made.”
But Wahoo’s response was the same as ever. Even though I’d explained the device was beyond its warranty and that I did not expect a replacement, a customer support coordinator apologised for the issue and asked for my shipping address. Within days, my fourth heart rate monitor was on the way.
At $160, these products are not cheap for consumers, and they are meant to last, but at times it has felt like my relationship with Wahoo is closer to the relationship you might have with a disposable contact lens provider. Your purchase gets you a year of heart rate monitoring, but it might be spread across four devices.
Experience contradicts green claims
To make matters worse, Wahoo makes a series of green claims which are directly at odds with my experience.
Wahoo’s website says that sport impacts individuals, cultures and the wider world, and with that “comes a responsibility to treat each other and our world the way they want to be treated.” The website also says that Wahoo has partnered with the Centre for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM) “to ensure that waste is recycled and reused where possible to help lessen our environmental impact.” But as the spaghetti of heart rate monitor straps on my living room floor suggests, Wahoo has never attempted to recover, recycle, or reuse these materials.
A Wahoo spokesperson said: “Wahoo has a high focus on customer satisfaction and making sure we support our athletes with first class customer service. Like all companies who create and manufacture consumer electronic products, from time to time we do see returns on products that don’t meet the high standards we expect."
“When this occurs, with the TICKR and with any other Wahoo product, we focus on the long-term commitment to taking care of the customer. This includes providing a replacement even when that product is out of warranty. We monitor customer service requests carefully and in the rare occasion that we become aware of consistently repeating problems, we investigate thoroughly. As a result, a new firmware update released on 22/06/23 has solved some of the main issues presented to us in customer returns.”
CHaRM did not respond to questions about its relationship with Wahoo for this story.
Companies must make sure products are built to last
This is not an acceptable way of doing business, according to Paul Smith, Consumer NZ’s head of testing and right to repair guru.
“The only positive thing here is that Wahoo has decent warranty support. It sounds like they need it! Good service is small comfort, though. You still get the inconvenience of having the product break, the stress of claiming a replacement, and downtime with no device. But the real madness here is all the wasted resources, the precious metals, plastic and energy used to make every short-lived device,” Smith says.
According to Smith, a better solution would be to build products that last.
“Wahoo should just make the product durable in the first place. Then everyone is a winner: Wahoo owners get uninterrupted heart rate monitoring, Wahoo has much more satisfied customers, and we stop the cycle of turning precious resources into waste.”
I know I agree, and I won’t be seeking a replacement when the latest device breaks down.
Sick of wasting money on products you can’t repair?
Let’s put the pressure back on manufacturers to do better. Show them you want products you can repair and help us demand a mandatory repairability label.