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Is the Energy Star Brand Losing its Edge?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced efforts to bolster the Energy Star program Friday, days after a survey suggested the brand could be losing its edge in the marketplace.

The EPA and DOE began testing six commonly used appliances this week, while also working to create a system to ensure that all Energy Star-labeled products are tested to guarantee they deliver the energy savings that are promised.

The agencies are also stepping up their enforcement efforts, including actions against 35 manufacturers over the last four months, such as the disqualification of 34 compact fluorescent light bulbs from 25 manufacturers, removing the label from 20 LG refrigerator-freezer models, and the termination of a partnership between Energy Star and US Refrigeration over misuse of the logo. Manufacturers also will be subject to an ongoing verification program to ensure compliance.

The moves are meant to prop up confidence in the brand, which has faced controversy in recent years. In 2008, Consumer Reports tested refrigerators and found many consumed more energy than they were supposed to. It also drew attention to out-of-date testing and the high proportion of products that meet the standard for some categories, when just a quarter should qualify.

"Consumers have long trusted the Energy Star brand for products that will save them energy and save them money," said Cathy Zoi, DOE Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, said in a statement.  "The steps we're taking now will further strengthen and improve the program, building on the results that consumers have come to expect."

Indeed, a survey released this week found broad recognition and awareness for the Energy Star brand, but it needs to evolve to address the changing marketplace and consumer expectations.

"Americans are clearly supportive of a tiered approach to labeling depending on the level of energy efficiency provided," according to the report, "Energy Star Shining Bright? National Consumer Survey on the Energy Star Brand," the seventh EcoPinion survey from EcoAlign. "Over 90 percent of Americans indicated support for such an approach, and a large majority indicated they would buy a "gold" Energy Star product."

The survey found that various groups of people view the brand differently, meaning that targeted marketing could enhance its perceived value, increase engagement and maintain its "differentiated edge."

The survey suggests creating an emotional tie to the brand would boost its profile. For the most part, Americans have a functional view of the brand for its implied efficiency and money-saving attributes. Women, according to the survey, value the energy efficiency, while men place more stock in the savings.

There is also a generational gap: Sixty-four percent of Americans over the age of 55 characterized Energy Star as extremely important, compared to 45 percent for those between the ages of 18 and 34.

There were other disparities surrounding the brand. Women and homeowners, for example, were more likely to view it as more important than renters, while households making less than $50,000 were more likely to deem the brand unimportant.

According to the DOE, Americans saved nearly $17 billion on utility bills last year by using Energy Star Products.

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