If you're of even a moderately environmental bent, browsing the aisles of your local Target or Walmart these days might be an exercise in frustration. Unlike in past decades, when you would have had trouble finding green products on store shelves, today you'll more likely have trouble finding goods that aren't marked "sustainable," "organic," or "ethically sourced." Most can agree that the proliferation of earth-friendly products is a good thing, but the huge variety of competing ecolabels (189 at last count) creates substantial confusion over which products are the greenest, most nutritious, or most socially conscious.
Consumables in particular—food, cleaning products, toiletries, and so on—are a minefield of conflicting, overlapping certifications and potential greenwashing. The labels placed on such products are created by a broad array of non-profits, and each is designed to address a specific concern. Most of these badges are legitimate, but the actual standards and practices they represent are opaque at the point of sale, so picking one over another usually ends up being an act of faith rather than an informed choice. What these industries lack are enforceable minimum standards that products must achieve before they can be given a green sheen.
But not all goods suffer from this kind of uncertainty. Thanks to a series of congressional acts and edicts from the Environmental Protection Agency, consumer appliances and electronics are governed by strict efficiency guidelines that make it remarkably easy to tell what you're getting for your green dollar. Bright yellow EnergyGuide labels affixed to a variety of new products give buyers an estimate of yearly energy use and operating cost, and the iconic baby-blue Energy Star emblem calls out especially notable power- and water-sippers.
Appliances and the Rise of Environmental Consciousness
If there was one pivotal year for environmental consciousness in the United States, it was 1970. Congress kicked off the year by enacting the National Environmental Policy Act—a law that for the first time required governmental agencies to take environmental concerns into account when proposing new projects. In his State of the Union address a few weeks later, President Richard Nixon took a stridently activist tone, proposing that the 1970s could be a "historic period when, by conscious choice, [we] transform our land into what [we] want it to become." This was followed by the inaugural Earth Day, which "brought 20 million Americans out into the spring sunshine for peaceful demonstrations in favor of environmental reform." Finally, Nixon brought the year to a close by establishing the EPA on December 2nd and signing the Clean Air Act on December 31st.
As President Nixon had hoped, the decade that followed ushered in a variety of new conservationist laws, covering everything from the protection of endangered species to the quality of public drinking water. Consumer goods slipped largely under the radar until 1975, when congress reacted to the 1973 oil crisis by passing the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. It called for efficiency targets for major household appliances, and was followed in 1978 by the National Energy Conservation and Policy Act, which authorized the Department of Energy to set mandatory efficiency standards for 13 appliance categories. That act was amended and updated in 1987 by the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act, which finally set the first national efficiency standards.
These minimum standards, updated a few times each decade to reflect improvements in appliance technology, represent a baseline for efficiency that all appliances sold in the United States must achieve. But they aren't the only guidelines in play: In 1992, the EPA and DOE collaborated to create the Energy Star program. This voluntary certification program was designed to identify and promote products that significantly exceed federal efficiency minimums (typically by 20 to 30 percent). The Energy Star program has grown dramatically over the past couple decades, and now encompasses more than 60 product categories and tens of thousands of individual products.
Shining a Light on Energy Star's Shortcomings
Though federal minimums are essentially invisible to the average consumer—every product sold meets the minimums, so consumers never really have to know what those minimums are—their results in driving up efficiency have been impressive. According to the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP), products meeting existing federal standards reduced overall electricity use in the US by about 7% in 2010, and savings are projected to rise to 14% by 2035. To put that kind of conservation in real-world context, we're talking about a cumulative savings of 200 quads by 2035—equivalent to two years of total US energy consumption. And if even more stringent proposed specifications are adopted, this number rise as high as 20%.
The Energy Star program has created even larger energy and water savings, but has also taken its fair share of criticism. The program has been attacked both for loopholes that allowed less-than-stellar appliances to wear the badge (a problem the Obama administration addressed in 2010), and for its sky-high acceptance rate. For instance, of the major appliances currently for sale at Sears.com, 84% of fridges, 92% of clothes washers, and 97% of dishwashers are Energy Star–certified. Every single front-loading clothes washer sold by Sears meets Energy Star criteria. On the surface, that’s great news for buyers, but how can you tell which washers are the most efficient if every washer is labeled “efficient”?
Staying Ahead of the Curve
Part of the reason why there are so many qualified appliances is that appliance manufacturers actively lobby for the creation and enforcement of federal standards. This may sound counterintuitive, but it's generally a win-win-win situation for manufacturers, environmental regulators, and consumers alike.
To begin with, the creation of new, stricter minimum efficiency standards gives manufacturers a target to aim for, usually several years in advance. For example, the new minimum efficiency standards for top-loading clothes washers are currently being discussed that are projected to save 33% more energy and 19% more water than the current regulations. These standards won't go into effect until 2018, and the exact specifications won't be finalized for some time to come, but history tells us that they also won't differ drastically from the numbers in the initial draft. This gives manufacturers nearly five years of lead time to design and standardize their production to meet the tougher regulations.
Also helpful is the fact that new federal minimums in a given category often closely mirror existing Energy Star criteria. This means that if manufacturers aim to meet or exceed current Energy Star regulations, they can reasonably expect they'll be clear of government red tape for several years to come.
Other benefits are less direct, but nevertheless likely to make manufacturers a boatload of cash in the long run.
When they lobby for stricter standards, industry groups also tend to push for tax breaks and incentives in exchange for developing smart grid–connected appliances. If these incentives become a reality, and if smart grid technology takes off like handheld smart devices have, the manufacturers stand to profit on two fronts.
(That isn't to say that manufacturers will blindly go along with any standards the EPA and DOE might propose. A couple of responses from prominent appliance-makers Miele and Whirlpool to the proposed Energy Star V7.0 standards give a unique perspective on the push-pull relationship that the manufacturers have with legislative bodies.)
Why Efficiency Ratings Don't Tell the Whole Story
While every appliance on the market today is more efficient than those sold just a few years ago, it’s important to remember that not all sub-types of a given appliance are created equal. Front-loading washers, for instance, are far more efficient than top-loaders simply by virtue of their basic design, and so the EPA and DOE put tougher limits on energy and water use for the former than they do for the latter. In the same vein, today’s average top-freezer refrigerator saves a lot more energy than even the best Energy Star–rated bottom-freezer or side-by-side unit. (The Energy Star site has a "Buying Guidance" section for each product category that can provide further helpful tips.)
Conversely, some appliances—namely ovens and dryers—don't have Energy Star ratings at all. While there are federal efficiency standards, the technology simply doesn't exist (at least in the United States) to call out some as more efficient than others. A draft of an Energy Star specification for residential clothes dryers is in the works, but consumers won't see the fruit of that endeavor for several years to come. In the meantime, you can keep an eye out for heat-pump dryers to begin arriving from Europe.
And there's one last consideration to keep in mind: If you’re one of that rare breed of consumers whose interest in efficiency extends beyond the monthly bottom line and into environmentalism, you might want to consider that tossing out an old appliance before its natural death has ramifications beyond your home. Somewhere there’s a very dirty factory pumping out your shiny-new efficient appliance. If you really care that deeply, consider line drying over a tumble dryer.
The Bottom Line
If you need to buy a new appliance today, you can rest assured you'll be getting one that's significantly more efficient than the one you bought as little as 10 years ago. It will consume less water, burn less energy, and do its job just as well—and quite likely even better. Combined with advances in residential construction—including improved insulation, HVAC systems, and water heaters—this means that today's homes are far cheaper to own and likely far more comfortable to live in than their predecessors.
This is a rare case of business and government working in harmony to achieve goals that will benefit everyone, and doing so in a largely transparent manner (though we would like to have a word with the EPA's web designers). While it's exceedingly unlikely that we'll ever have appliances that are truly good for the planet, it's still worth something to know that the ones we have to choose from are less harmful than those that came before.