Dear Umbra,

When I see the Energy Star rating on an appliance, can I trust that some government or consumer group is monitoring the ratings, or is that just a commercial ploy? Who profits from the Energy Star thing?

Not Starry-Eyed
Bridgewater, N.J.

Dearest Not Starry-Eyed,

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Energy Star is a project of our very own U.S. EPA, with assistance from the Department of Energy. Products that meet Energy Star standards are permitted to carry a flier that displays the Energy Star logo and compares the energy use of the product against other similar products, usually in dollars. It’s a voluntary program, funded by the government in partnership with private and public organizations, that relies on market incentives for manufacturer participation. The theory is that when Energy Star is promoted and certified products are available, shoppers can clearly see the financial benefits of owning more efficient equipment. Private groups partner with EPA to promote and develop the program, businesses promote the label, and everyone profits from the manufacture and purchase of energy-efficient products. The label’s success is market-driven, which apparently has worked well with computer equipment, much of which meets Energy Star standards. The home-appliance and home-building markets are less saturated with Energy Star products.

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I take the subtext of your query to be the reliability of Energy Star as a shopping guideline. It is a commercial ploy, certainly, and you can trust that both governments and consumer groups are monitoring the ratings. Products that beat the general federal efficiency standard by certain amounts qualify for an Energy Star label (see the label specifications). Manufacturers probably find the standards too high, and the environmentalist stance ranges from resignation to repudiation.

Be wary of label-based shopping as a solution, or an end unto itself. Ecological labeling and brands are part of a solution but also potential soporific diversions. Hence, the need for consumer activism. Be sure to advocate for conservation measures among your local utilities, including appliance standards.

Proxima Centauri,