Reading Time: 4 minutes

Sorry I have been a bit quieter than normal recently, but I have had to prepare for a public debate on the EU referendum obsessively concerning the UK at the moment.

I was on a three person panel defending remaining in the EU against three others arguing for leaving. The debate was in the context of humanism, especially as it was hosted by the Dorset Humanists, in Bournemouth.

Anyway, in the opening speech by a Conservative (ex-UKIP, possibly), the topic of vacuum cleaners came up as an argument against the EU. I actually ended my summary for our team at the end of the night in answering this.

Let me explain.

In September 2014, the EU introduced a rule banning the sale of general consumers of vacuum cleaners with motors of over 1,600 watts. This was the European Commission’s ‘Ecodesign’ scheme, which is aimed at improving the environmental performance of products sold across the EU. When this happened, I was quite annoyed. I do most of the vacuuming at home and loved out old Vax 2000 watt vacuum with its strong suction and power. I couldn’t believe that I was going to have to make do with a less powerful model, eventually, which would provide less function.

However, when I put away my intuitive reaction, I realised and hoped, at the back of my mind, that this would work for the better.

Anyway, forward wind to a couple of months ago. Our old Vax gave up the ghost. I popped to Sainsbury’s and bought one off the shelf with a 900 watt motor. Over half the power. I got home, unboxed it, turned it on, and it sucked up my carpet. Yes, the hopes lodged at the back of my consciousness were borne out. The vacuum was more powerful, or more efficient, than my previous 2000 watt model.

What had happened was that the EU were able to strategically plan, and introduce regulation that benefitted consumers.

Free marketeers argue that the free market, with its corporations and consumers, should define and arbitrate for products designed and manufactured in a given market. Regulation is the devil incarnate and should be seen nowhere near an economy.

As I have mentioned many times before, the free market cannot morally arbitrate. Morality can only accidentally come about if the consumers demand it. But if there is any (initial) cost involved in bringing about a moral dimension to a product, it would be unlikely to succeed, since we know consumers are overwhelmingly price driven. Costs, such as pollution, borne out in the production of a good, and which are not picked up by the manufacturer themselves, are know as negative externalities. These are most often seen in terms of the environment and health (eg smoking, sugar etc.). It is invariably the taxpayer that picks up the bill. On a local level, if industries are polluting a river, it would be the river’s authority, taxpayer paid for, that would sort out the rivers.

Enter stage left regulation. Pure free marketeers hate regulation. But regulation is what stopped or is helping to stop children working down mines, discrimination against any minority, pollution of the environment; it helped give us weekends, maternity and paternity leave, and other workers’ rights, and so on. The free market simply cannot deliver this, and given consumers’ predilection for cheaper goods, and the nature of competition, such a free market scenario would undoubtedly drive society in the wrong direction. Life simply isn’t just about economics, you know.

The end result is that the Leave debaters used meddling regulation into vacuum cleaners as an argument against the EU. I won’t post all the kneejerk and anti-EU screaming from the likes of the Daily Mail and Express about such “bonkers” rules. Here is what the Guardian said at the time:

Of seven awarded Best Buy status since January 2013, five have motors of more than 1,600 watts. A Best Buy 2,200w vacuum costs around £27 a year to run in electricity – around £8 more than the best-scoring 1,600w it has tested.

The consumer group argues that the move is self-defeating – claiming that householders would simply use the less powerful models for longer to achieve the same degree of cleaning.

The move has also angered manufacturers who agree the move will do nothing to make cleaners more environmentally friendly and will simply reduce efficiency in the home.

For the first time, the labels will give vacuum cleaners A to G ratings for energy use, cleaning performance on carpets and hard floors, and dust emissions. The label also requires a minimum level of performance for the vacuum to be sold in the EU.

But in reality, I hope I pointed out, this regulation is actually an argument for the EU. Such strategic management of the economy, morally speaking, has meant that companies underwent R&D and produced motors that were far superior in efficiency that meant half the wattage gave over double the suction power. This saves the consumer money, and helps in reducing CO2 emissions.

Dyson has never even produced a vacuum of over 1,600 watts. Expertreviews explains:

Throughout our thorough reviews process, we consistently find that a vacuum’s power rating has little impact on suction. Instead, a combination of factors, including motor and cylinder design, whether the bag or bin is full, whether the filters are regularly cleaned and the shape of the vacuum head can all affect how good a vacuum cleaner is at its job. The 1,400w AEG Ultracaptic Animal has the most powerful suction of all the vacuums we’ve tested to date, outperforming 2,200w machines.

A wattage rating isn’t always an indicator of what’s being drawn from the plug socket, either; we’ve seen 2,200W rated vacuums draw less than 1,100w, and 1,000w cleaners exceed their rating by up to 200w. Power draw will depend on the power setting and suction mode of a cleaner, if it has them, as well as motor wattage.

The EU, then , is improving things for consumers in setting high expectations for manufacturers.

I have no problem with this. My new vacuum is awesome, and it costs me less to run, and it’s better for the environment.

Avatar photo

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...