It gets harder and harder to be a good consumer. Cutting through greenwashing and digging out truly sustainable products takes research and effort—and it would be so much easier if someone else would do it for us.
Some Energy Star-rated home appliances may use more energy than necessary. Photo By NancyHugoCKD.com/Courtesy Flickr.
For years, the U.S. Department of Energy has done the homework for home appliance shoppers, who have relied on the Energy Star logo to get the most energy-efficient models. The program has had a solid reputation despite bad press in 2008, when Consumer Reports found that most Energy Star-qualified refrigerators consumed more energy than they were supposed to and that many more than the 25 percent of products that should qualify bore the label.
Now the label’s been dealt a real blow. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GOA) covertly investigated the Energy Star program by submitting 20 fake products. Among the 15 that earned the Energy Star label were a gas-powered alarm clock, a computer monitor that was approved within 30 minutes of submission, a room cleaner that was nothing more than a feather duster attached to a space heater, and a refrigerator that was submitted, qualified and listed on the Energy Star web site within 24 hours. Only four of the products were required to provide third-party certification, but two made it through because Energy Star didn’t verify the information. Energy Star officials admitted that some of the approvals were issued by an automated response and probably hadn’t been reviewed by an actual person.
The investigation has spurred the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step up the Energy Star program. The two government agencies are working on a system that ensures all Energy Star-labeled products are tested by a independent third party, and they’ve launched a new two-step process to expand testing and ensure that all Energy Star-labeled products meet energy efficiency standards. Following the GOA investigation, the DOE immediately began tests on six common household appliances and began scrutinizing several products that already receive certification, which led to the disqualification of several compact fluorescent light bulbs.
It’s unclear when the Energy Star program will be back on track again. In the meantime, if you’re in the market for home appliances, it pays to do your homework.