Navigating the Laws and Ecolabels for Energy Efficiency

Navigating the Laws and Ecolabels for Energy Efficiency

To be successful in the marketplace, manufacturers of any product using energy must be current on efficiency standards. And to be competitive, those companies should also consider third-party certification that their goods meet or exceed efficiency requirements.

That can be a tremendous challenge for businesses. Regulations differ across the globe and are subject to change.

As for ecolabels, there are at least 500 in existence and new ones continue to emerge. Sorting through them for credible third-party assessment systems can be like trying to find your way through a jungle, says Marcello Manca, vice president and general manager of UL Environment, the spinoff of safety testing giant Underwriters Laboratories that investigates and certifies the environmental claims of products.

The good news is there are ways to keep abreast of regulatory changes for energy efficiency and strategies for finding respected, reliable third-party certification programs. Manca and three fellow panelists shared their tips for doing so in a recent webinar presented by UL Environment, the U.S. Department of Commerce and GreenBiz.com.

The webinar has been archived and is available for free viewing at:
http://tinyurl.com/ULEEnergyEfficiency.

With Manca, who is based in Milan, Italy; Sylvia Mohr, Commerce Department standards specialist for the U.S. mission to the European Union, based in Brussels; Karen Barnes, director of insight for the Shelton Group and an expert on consumer mindsets, based in Tennessee; and GreenBiz.com Executive Editor Joel Makower moderating from California, the panel provided viewpoints from the standards and certifications arena, the regulatory field and the marketplace, as well as international perspective.

"There is a growing need to sort out fact from fiction," said Makower, when it comes to product claims.

"Independent, third-party certification is a powerful resource against accusations of greenwashing," said Manca, whose presentation included an overview of energy efficiency standards in North America. "If you have a good third-party [program] by your side, this is going to be the best defense."

Increasingly, energy efficiency programs in North America want manufacturers to provide proof that their products meet the performance thresholds.

"In Canada, they've already come to the conclusion that all products should be tested by an accredited third-party entity," Manca said of Natural Resources Canada, the government ministry that sets the energy efficiency requirements for products.

In the U.S., the Department of Energy sets federal requirements for energy efficiency of products and the California Energy Commission maintains one of the more rigorous programs for state standards. Both require products to be tested by accredited laboratories (this is limited to certain categories on the federal level).

Energy Star, the voluntary program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the DOE that seeks to identify the most energy efficient products available, is moving from a system that permitted companies to declare that their products have met performance thresholds to one that requires proof of conformance, Manca noted.

The change in the 18-year-old program follows reports that some products bearing the famous label failed to meet Energy Star standards. The reports included one released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in March that declared the process for products to obtain the label was "vulnerable to fraud and abuse."

The program's shift from a "self-declaration type of program to a pre-market testing and certification type of approach" is significant, Manca said. "I think they are heading in the right direction," he added.

Despite criticism of the program, Energy Star remains a widely recognized brand and continues to be perceived as a global leader. "What we see in the consumer pool is that Energy Star is by far the most trusted ecolabel," said Barnes of the Shelton Group.

Manca advised firms seeking certification of their product claims to "look for the science and ... for the expertise" when conducting due diligence reviews of prospective providers. "Make sure your trust is put in the right place," he said.

Manca also emphasized that product performance standards are not static, and that strong programs take into account the need for continuous improvement. "It's not sufficient to test a product today and expect that to be adequate for its shelf life," he said.

In the European Union, energy-elated products -- televisions, lighting, fans and other products that use energy -- will soon be subject to new energy efficiency requirements, and it's important for companies to be aware of those changes, said Mohr.

She provided more than a half-dozen websites as resources for firms that have, or wish to have, products in the European Union, where the regulatory approach and the framework for setting and revising safety, environmental and energy efficiency standards are different from the processes in the U.S.

The sites can help firms keep tabs on regulatory changes in the EU, she said, strongly urging that companies doing business internationally "monitor what's going on in the EU."

"It's always good to be prepared," Mohr said. "What you know today as a regulatory standard may change."

Barnes shared findings of consumer surveys conducted for her firm and provided a reality check for companies dealing in energy efficiency products and solutions. She also highlighted three key insights from her company's research:

1. Consumers know less than you think they do. Even though more companies are emphasizing energy efficiency, less seems to be registering among consumers surveyed. Fewer were able to name one or two green home features last year than those surveyed in 2008.

2. They've got high expectations (and it's up to you to manage them). Slightly more than half, 53.3 percent, of consumers who invested in energy  efficiency products or home renovations said their utilities bills dropped as they had expected. But almost 33 percent said their bills hadn't dropped and their vocal disappointment has produced "a lot of backlash going around about this," Barnes said.

3. Importance doesn't always equal action. Seventy-three percent of consumers surveyed said saving energy is important or very important. But only 31 percent said they routinely place energy saving ahead of personal comfort by setting their heating or air conditioning to recommended levels.

What's the upshot? "Consumers are concerned about spending money right now and care about other things," said Barnes, who recommended that companies "perform an energy intervention" to get consumers' attention.

"You have to wake them up and tell them this is a personal problem and they need to take responsibility for it," she said.

More details about the Shelton Group consumer poll and the advice from Manca and Mohr are provided in the archived webinar, which will be available from GreenBiz.com until July 15, 2011.

See Melissa Schweisguth's article "10 Tips for Savvy Shopping in the Certification Marketplace" on GreenBiz.com for more advice about selecting the right ecolabel for your product.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy