By Guest Blogger Mia Council
For people purchasing new appliances, energy efficiency is one of the most important considerations–not only for the purpose of preserving the environment, but also for reducing energy bills . Since 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency has been granting Energy Star labels to the most efficient consumer products to help Americans use less energy. In 2010, the program weathered a storm of controversy when auditors tested the certification system by submitting ridiculous products that never existed except on paper. The self-certifying system failed the test when it accepted things like a gas-powered alarm clock the size of a washing machine. But, after reform, the program has been steadily improving, and the logo is still influential to 91% of consumers and the overall movement to reduce energy usage.
The latest threat to the Energy Star program is not internal mistakes. Instead, it’s the collaboration of two lawmakers and Whirlpool, a major manufacturer accused of carrying an unmerited Energy Star label on some of its products. After several companies with Energy Star certifications were found not to deserve the labels – in many cases, models they submitted to the E.P.A. had more efficient designs or raw materials than the models that actually went on the market – those companies, including Whirlpool, were hit with class-action lawsuits. Now, Whirlpool says it will leave Energy Star if Congress does not pass legislation to protect companies from the lawsuits. Congressman Robert Latta, whose district hosts several Whirlpool factories, has introduced a bill that would ban the lawsuits if the E.P.A. issued a decision to deal with products that didn’t deserve the seal, such as voluntary reimbursement of customers. Congressman Peter Welch, who is a member along with Whirlpool of industry-supported group Alliance to Save Energy, is co-sponsoring the bill.
But it’s clear that the legislation is intended to protect companies from accountability, rather than provide real benefits to the program, consumers, or the cause of energy efficiency. As CU’s Shannon Baker-Branstetter points out, “Consumers are not represented in EPA’s negotiations with manufacturers on what the proper consumer recourse should be when a product is disqualified.” Without class-action lawsuits, consumers would have few options to deal with a manufacturer who misrepresents a product under the trusted Energy Star label. The new legislation would remove the layer of consumer protection the courts give the program. And because the E.P.A. can’t be everywhere at once, the accountability for misleading the public with a non-compliant product would be reduced overall. As Baker-Branstetter says, “Consumers should have recourse if they rely on the Energy Star label and the product doesn’t deliver.”