Vacuum cleaners

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 27 brands of vacuum cleaner.

We also look at corded and cordless models, bagged versus bagless, the issues around energy labels, the ethics of Dyson and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying a vacuum cleaner:

  • Is it a corded vacuum with a small motor? Corded vacuums avoids battery problems, and the smaller motor will have lower energy consumption than bigger models.

  • Is it a manual sweeper? Human powered vacuum cleaners are zero-carbon-in-use, and can reduce the frequency of use of an electric vacuum. They are also much cheaper at around £30.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying a vacuum cleaner:

  • Is it a cordless vacuum? The lithium battery creates environmental and ethical problems during production and at end of life.

  • Is it made by a company involved in the arms trade? Several brands such as Beko are implicated in military links in Turkey and other countries.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

Vacuum cleaners come in all shapes and sizes: corded and cordless; bagged and bagless; stick, upright, cylinder and handheld. This guide looks at the makers of all these different types and what the issues are when it comes to deciding what to buy.

Unfortunately for eco-conscious or ethical consumers, following a court case by Dyson, there are no energy labels on vacuum cleaners. This can make it harder to assess the energy efficiency of different models.

We also look at manual cleaners and the role they can play in a lower carbon life. These have been made since the 1880s - could they make a come-back as people seek more environmentally-friendly alternatives?

Eco vacuum cleaner?

As vacuum cleaners do not need to have an Energy Label, the only options for consumers looking for an eco-friendly vacuum cleaner are to:

  • buy a corded vacuum which is covered by the Ecodesign regulations.
  • look at motor size – lower wattage means lower energy use.
  • consider buying a manual cleaner to use some of the time instead of a powered vacuum cleaner.

Power usage - small is better

A smaller motor means lower energy use, and according to Which?, a bigger motor with a bigger wattage does not necessarily equate to better cleaning performance.

In 2019, the European Commission said that lower-wattage vacuum cleaners could save up to 20 TWh of electricity per year by 2020, the equivalent of the annual household energy consumption of Belgium.

Corded vacuum power

The power of a corded vacuum cleaner is the most common specification given by a manufacturer and is often used as a selling point. It is usually found under technical specifications on a website and given in watts.

A survey of the corded brands in this guide with an Ethiscore of 8 or more found that most models were between 700W and 900W (the maximum wattage allowed). But Numatic, Bissell, Ewbank, Swan, and Shark all made at least one model with a motor of 450 watts or less.

Numatic advertises its 420W vacuums, the Henry Eco and Numatic ERP180, as having high-efficiency motors because of their 30% reduction in energy usage compared to its models with 620W motors.

Cordless vacuum power 

The power of cordless vacuum cleaners is measured in volts (V) – more volts equals more wattage equals more energy consumed. Overall, cordless vacuums tend to be lower wattage than corded vacuums, but we could not find wattage information for any cordless models.

We found some manufacturers’ websites that indicated battery voltage for some models but not for all, and some manufacturers didn’t indicate voltage at all.

Cartoon of James Dyson sweeping up energy label with vacuum cleaner

Why no Energy Label?

The EU Energy Label for mains operated (corded) vacuum cleaners was introduced in 2014 to cut energy use across Europe, but it was withdrawn in 2019 after Dyson argued in court that the pick-up tests didn’t reflect real life use because tests were conducted with an empty vacuum rather than full of dust.

Dyson argued that this test favoured bagged vacuum cleaners because they might be energy efficient when empty but use more energy when full of dust. Dyson, coincidentally, only makes bagless cleaners.

However, Which? actually found that both bagged and bagless vacuums can lose suction as the bag or container fills up.

Nevertheless, as a result of Dyson’s court case, vacuum cleaner manufacturers are no longer required to display an energy label on their products. We didn’t find any manufacturers voluntarily displaying an Energy Label on their websites.

This means there is no energy labelling scheme for consumers looking for energy efficient vacuums.

EU Ecodesign regulations still apply to corded vacuums but not to cordless and handheld models. These regulations restrict the maximum motor wattage of corded vacuums to 900W and the noise level to 80 decibels. They also require minimum cleaning, filtration and durability standards.

When the Energy Label existed, cordless models were exempt. One consequence of that was that many manufacturers focused on cordless models. For example, Dyson announced in 2018, before the Energy Label was annulled, that it wasn’t making any new corded models.

The EU is working on a revised version of the Energy Label and is also looking at broadening its remit to cordless vacuum cleaners. Though we are no longer part of the EU, it is unlikely that manufacturers will make separate models just for the UK market.

But will labels be displayed on vacuums for sale in the UK?

Bagged vs Bagless vacuums

With bagless vacuum cleaners you don’t have the problem of replacing or reusing dust bags. But emptying bagless containers may be an issue for allergy sufferers.

Some manufacturers of bagless vacuums claim that bagged models lose suction as the bag fills up, and that bagless vacs don’t. Some also claim their bagless systems have hygienic emptying features. However, Which? found that both bagged and bagless vacuums can lose suction as the bag or container fills up. They also tested bagless vacs with hygienic emptying features, and found they still released much more dust into the room when emptied than bagged models.

Dust bags for bagged cleaners

You can get both disposable bags and reusable bags for most vacuums either from the vacuum manufacturer or there are loads of other companies that make them.

If disposable then opt for paper ones rather than synthetic so they are at least biodegradable. If reusable then you can get cloth bags that can be washed and reused. You can even empty and reuse paper bags, but the bags act as a filter and need air to pass through them so after a while the paper may get clogged with dust.

Cordless versus Corded vacuums

Both Gtech and Dyson now only make cordless vacuums and they are becoming increasingly prevalent on the market. However, the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that cordless vacuums run on have environmental and social impacts of their own, as we explain below.

In the case of vacuums, where there are many lithium battery-free options – i.e. corded vacuums – cordless and rechargeable vacuums can be easily avoided.

Other drawbacks to cordless vacuums

Which? says that on average:

  • The best cordless vac is twice as expensive as the best corded one.
  • Cordless vacs suck up 41% of dust from carpets compared to 70% for corded.
  • Cordless are less durable than corded and fare less well in reliability tests

Lithium-ion batteries in cordless vacuums

Used in cordless vacuums but also as storage for renewable energy, in mobile phones and in electric cars, lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are a crucial step forward in battery technology for tackling climate change. But the mining and processing of this mineral known as ‘white gold’ is problematic.

The big producers of lithium are China, the USA, Australia and South America (Argentina, Bolivia and Chile). In South America, lithium is extracted from brine under salt flats. Its processing uses a lot of water and, because it comes from some of the driest places on earth, local communities and farmers are often deprived of water.

In addition, toxic waste products that are filtered out of the brine and hydrochloric acid used in the processing of lithium, can leak into rivers and the water supply. Where lithium is mined from rock using chemicals, similar contamination of water can occur.

Bolivian lithium salt flats
Lithium is extracted from salt flats like this one in Bolivia in South America but at what cost to local communities?

An in-depth investigation by the Washington Post in 2016 focused on the Atacama people in Argentina and their concerns about contamination, water shortages and how much they share in the profits from the operations on their ancestral lands.

Lithium-based batteries also require raw materials like cobalt, nickel and graphite, which further complicate the supply chain. For example, over 20% of cobalt exports from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world’s top producer, come from unregulated artisanal mines that often employ children. And for nickel and graphite, producing countries cope with health impacts, pollution and deforestation.

And, like fossil fuels, lithium is a finite resource so there needs to be a circular recycling solution to make its use sustainable. According to Friends of the Earth, because they contain compounds of various metals, the technology for recycling lithium batteries is currently inadequate and expensive. They often end up in landfill or are incinerated. It argues for tighter recycling regulations and better recycling technology.

As we become more reliant on lithium technology, we need something similar to the conflict minerals regulations – the Dodd Frank Act – which covers the gold, tungsten, tin and tantalum used in electronics.

In February 2021, Amnesty International published a set of principles for businesses and governments for ensuring that lithium is not linked to human rights abuses or environmental damage from extraction to end-of-life. Amnesty International also calls on manufacturers to design batteries for maximum resource efficiency, including innovations to use fewer materials and minerals, and to work towards 100% safely recycled content in batteries. 51 civil society organisations across the world have endorsed the principles.

More details of the metals used in batteries appear in our batteries guide.

What to do with waste batteries

If you do have a cordless vacuum, you may need to replace the battery. Although some councils collect batteries as part of their household collection services, in most areas waste batteries have to be taken to the local recycling centre or a battery drop-off point. UK legislation requires all battery retailers and distributors who sell or supply 32 kg or more of portable batteries annually to offer a free takeback collection of waste or used batteries.

In some products, the battery’s not replaceable. Another good reason to avoid cordless vacuums.

Where Are Vacuum Cleaners Made?

Ewbank Products originated in Accrington in 1864, the brand name coming from the Ewbank area of the town where the factory was located. It started off making manual washing machines and mangles and has been making carpet sweepers since 1880.

Now however, it is pretty safe to say that most vacuums are made in the Far East. For example:

  • Beldray says that 85% of its products come from China.
  • Ewbank’s specification sheets for its products say made in China.
  • Gtech says the wages are cheaper in China but they are planning to make a vacuum cleaner in the UK (see Companies behind the brands).
  • Dyson used to make its vacuums in the UK but moved production to Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines in 2002.

There are a couple of notable exceptions however:

  • Numatic has made its Henry and Numatic vacuums in Somerset for more than 35 years – the steel components are manufactured in Wales, the motors delivered from Scotland and the bodies are vacuum moulded in Somerset. Everything is made, painted and assembled in the UK.
  • Sebo says its machines are ‘Made in Germany’. “With pride we can say that 90% of all components used are made and developed by SEBO.”

Supply chain management

None of the companies in the table did much better on policies to protect workers’ rights in their supply chains. 15 of the companies scored worst whilst 3 scored a middle rating. The notable exceptions are Miele, Beldray, John Lewis and Sainsbury’s who all got a best rating.

Conflict minerals

All the companies in this guide use electronics that contain minerals like tungsten, tin, tantalum and gold. The main source of these minerals is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where they are mined in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuses.

Most companies did not have an adequate policy on the sourcing of these minerals. Only three companies did – Vax and Black & Decker getting a best rating whilst AEG got a middle.

Carbon Reporting

16 of the 22 companies in this guide scored our worst rating for their carbon emissions reporting and management. This included two of the bestselling brands, Gtech and Dyson, neither of which said very much about their climate impact. The five exceptions are Miele, Vax, Beldray, AEG and Samsung who scored a middle rating.

No-one got a best rating. This is disappointing in a sector where carbon emissions are a key part of both the manufacture and use of vacuum cleaners.

Cartoon of James Dyson sweeping up cash and leaving Britain

Companies behind the brands: Spotlight on Dyson

James Dyson turned the vacuum cleaner into a design icon and to many he is a brilliant inventor and entrepreneur. But he is also a high-profile Brexit supporter and one of the few prominent businessmen who was. It was widely reported that he then left the UK in 2019 and moved Dyson’s headquarters from Wiltshire to Singapore where he owns the country’s most expensive penthouse costing $79 million.

Dyson said the move wasn’t for tax reasons. (Singapore is on our list of tax havens.) He said it was because most of Dyson’s sales and operations were now in that region. The company stopped manufacturing its products in the UK in 2002 and now makes everything in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. But it still apparently employs around 3,000 people in the UK doing research and development.

He also said the move to Singapore wasn’t to guard against Brexit, especially the sort of no-deal Brexit he once argued for. Singapore had, however, signed a trade agreement with the EU, in October 2018, which would give Dyson better access to EU markets than if it had stayed in no-deal Britain.

James Dyson used to support British membership of the euro. In 2000, he said that it would be “suicidal” for Britain not to join the euro. But his opposition to the EU started in 2014, only days after new EU standards for vacuum cleaners were introduced. He complained that the EU Energy Labelling scheme discriminated against his bagless vacuums and in 2018 he finally won a 5-year-long legal battle to have the regulation overturned on the grounds that it misled consumers.

He had already decided to back the Leave campaign in 2016 after he lost his first legal challenge to the Labelling rules. Since then, Dyson has repeatedly advocated stripping away European rights and protections because they stifle business. From our point of view, many of these rules are in place to protect consumers and the environment.

James Dyson was listed as the richest man in the UK by the 2020 Sunday Times Rich List, with his fortune estimated at £16.2 billion. He increased his net worth by £3.6 billion in one year.

Some consumers may also be deterred by his long-term support for the Conservative Party. It's also come to light that he personally lobbied Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ensure that the tax position of Dyson employees who were temporarily deployed to the UK to work on ventilators during the pandemic would not be liable to pay tax (under the statutory residency test).

Beeswax Dyson Farming is an agricultural company owned by James Dyson. It has four arable farms and 35,000 acres of farmland making James Dyson number 25 in the top 50 UK landowners. Dyson claims that its farms are sustainable and regenerative and are “innovating farming for the future”.

Dyson invested £2 billion in an electric car project which it was going to make in Singapore. But Dyson’s electric car dream ended abruptly in 2019 after four years and production of a driveable prototype, when Dyson couldn’t make the figures stack up.

Manual sweepers

Advantages:

  • Manual power so zero carbon in use
  • Fewer resources in manufacture because it’s a smaller appliance
  • No electronics so no conflict minerals issues
  • Quiet
  • Light
  • Cheap to buy and no running costs

According to carpet sweeper maker Ewbank, the main drawbacks to a manual sweeper compared to an electric vacuum is that they don’t clean as well because they have no suction. A more manageable drawback is that the dust container is smaller so you have to empty them more often.

One option would be to use your electric vacuum less often by using a carpet sweeper in between vacuuming sessions. Ewbank, Bissell and Beldray make manual sweepers as well as electric vacuums.

Product Sustainability

We gave all manual sweeper models an extra Product Sustainability point for being zero carbon in use. For the greenest option, the original manual sweeper is a dustpan and brush which has all the advantages of a manual sweeper, but more so, and you get more exercise whilst cleaning. This method is obviously better suited to hard floors rather than carpets and not so good for allergy sufferers.

The Numatic ERP180 is made from up to 75% plastic parts reused from the car industry and so receives an extra half point.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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