One of the messiest parts of the environmental world these days is the ever-growing plethora of eco labels. To wade your way through the potential greenwash, you have to know -- or ask -- not only what the rating means, but who's behind it. (I'll get to that part in a moment.)
Among eco labels, Energy Star is one of the oldest and most trusted, but it can be confusing that they have two distinct programs:
- one for rating appliances and electronics, and
- another for rating buildings.
The "original" Energy Star
Energy Star for products is the more familiar of the two -- the "original" Energy Star of the yellow appliance stickers or the logo that flashes by when your computer boots up.
The list of things that can earn an Energy Star label is pretty lengthy, ranging from air conditioners to battery chargers, water heaters and windows.
As the products in a market become more efficient, or as U.S. standards change, the requirements are toughened. The first set of Energy Star refrigerator requirements in 1997, for instance, was less rigorous than the requirements for a refrigerator built today.
Where the confusion may come in is that a house equipped with Energy Star appliances does not necessarily qualify as an Energy Star home.
Energy Star Homes
Under the joint auspices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, several types of buildings, including new homes, can earn an Energy Star rating by fulfilling a list of requirements that address
- not only appliances and lighting, but also include
- insulation, windows, general construction in terms of infiltration, and
- heating and cooling equipment.
By design, Energy Star looks at only one environmental category: energy efficiency.
- It does not address other environmental topics like water efficiency or air quality or toxicity.Nor is it concerned with recycled or renewable materials.
- For those, you need to look either at other single-attribute eco labels (such as the WaterSense labeling system for sinks, toilets, and showers)
- Or use a broader multiple-attribute rating system such as LEED for Homes.
Energy star is a third party label
One more point in general about eco labels: Energy Star is an example of an independent, third-party certifying label, meaning both the creation of the requirements and certifying that the products meet the requirements are carried out by agencies separate from the manufacturer or supplier or a trade organization.
Be skeptical of labels that are first- or second-party. They tend to rely on self-certification, which is less trustable than third-party, or have less stringent requirements.
The trustability issue can be complicated and hinders consumers' ability to use eco labels.
If in doubt or if you want to know more about a specific label, check sites like:
For more information:
Read "Do Energy Star product ratings take into account product lifespan and the environmental impact of planned obsolescence?" a Q&A answered by David Bergman.