Ever buy an appliance because it had an Energy Star badge? Good for you—but it probably didn't help the environment as much as you thought it did. Eco-friendliness, sustainability, green cred—whatever you want to call it, there's a lot more to it than how efficiently a product uses water and electricity. And right now, trying to figure out an appliance's true ecological impact is like trying to read the Matrix.
But the appliance industry wants to make it much easier for consumers to gauge a product's impact on the environment. New standards are appearing that take into account not just efficiency, but materials, manufacturing processes, end-of-life considerations, and more.
A new sustainability standard for clothes washers was announced this month, aimed at helping consumers pick products with the best overall "environmental performance." Developed by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), and Underwriters Laboratories (UL), it follows a similar program for refrigerators from the same group, announced in 2012. They're the first of a "family of sustainability standards," to be followed up in 2013 and 2014 with benchmarks for dishwashers and cooking products, according to Jill Notini, vice president of communications and marketing at AHAM.
Manufacturers can submit their products to a testing lab, where they'll be tested on six criteria, Notini said. If a product meets a minimum score across those criteria, then it earns a sustainability mark—sort of like an Energy Star badge—that manufacturers can post on a product's packaging or nameplate. Also like Energy Star, manufacturers don't have to share the scores for their products—it's basically a pass or fail proposition.
So, for example, if a fridge has mediocre efficiency, but is built from eco-friendly materials and will be easy to throw away at the end of its lifespan, then it could earn the sustainability mark.
Could this new badging program replace Energy Star as the must-have endorsement for conscious consumers? That depends on a few things. For starters, it's a totally voluntary standard. If no manufacturers choose to participate, then nobody will ever hear about it. Contrast that with the mandatory yellow EnergyGuide stickers—any appliance sold in the US has to have one, and every appliance shopper at least has an idea of how to read one. The new sustainability benchmarks aren't administered by a government agency, either, so they might never carry the same prestige as the Energy Star badge.
But there are some positive parallels to draw from Energy Star, too. It's also a voluntary standard—no appliance actually has to meet the guidelines, yet manufacturers are proud to highlight their compliant products. The industry has also taken the lead on lobbying for stricter efficiency standards every few years.
Critics note that the guidelines could stand to be even more stringent, but appliances in most categories have become vastly more efficient over the past few decades, since the original Energy Star standards were introduced. Fridges used an average of 50 percent less energy in 2010 than they did in 1987, while washing machines used 75 percent less. A huge part of these efficiency gains certainly comes from mandatory guidelines. But the ubiquity of Energy Star may have pushed consumers to be more conscious of an appliance's energy usage overall.
The new AHAM/CSA/UL sustainability standard hasn't really started to catch on yet. Whirlpool had a fridge certified under the guidelines last year. A few of LG's washing machines have already met the new standard. But most manufacturers have been quiet about the new badges. As guidelines for other product categories are announced, it could pick up momentum. Energy Star is still the king, for now.