Beyond the Label – Relying on Labels Could Hinder Your Sustainable Strategy

By: George Rollins

Take a walk through a home improvement store, or read a local business ad, and chances are that you will come across more green “certification” programs than you can keep track of. From Energy Star and LEED, to sustainable building standards, organic certifications and even standards for lumber, it seems
as though there is a sticker of some kind on everything! Does this mean that all is well, environmentally?

Unfortunately, no, it does not – just as labels that say “low fat” or “heart-healthy” do not necessarily mean that a food is good for you, a green certification label does not necessarily show that a product is good for the environment. Sadly, green certifications have become the latest marketing trend. I don’t think there will ever come a time when consumers will be able to sign over their consciences to large corporations, secure in the knowledge that big business is looking out for their best interests.

Here are some factors to keep in mind when choosing, or installing, large home appliances – and when deciphering their various green ratings and certifications:

  1. Who came up with this rating? Like rating systems in many other industries, green certifications are often produced, policed, and marketed by the same group of people who stand to benefit from the use of green construction materials. The National Green Building Standard was developed by a committee made up of home builders. LEED rating systems are developed by committees of volunteers who are drawn from the building and construction industry. The time has long past when green builders were those rare small businesses that you have to find by word-of-mouth after asking everyone you run into if they know of one. Today, green construction is big
    business, making up 20 percent of new residential construction and 25 percent of new commercial construction, according to the Green Outlook 2009, a market intelligence report put out by McGraw-
    Hill Construction, a McGraw-Hill company.

  2. Know your ratings. Some ratings are more applicable to some products than others. If you are buying building materials for a remodel or new construction, you will want to look at the LEED certification. Energy Star certifications apply to appliances such as air conditioners, furnaces, dishwashers, refrigerators – any large home appliance that uses energy. Some building products, such as insulation, windows, and doors, may also receive an Energy Star certification. However, an Energy Star certification is not the same thing as a green certification – though the two ideas are related. An Energy Star certification simply tells you that the product is more energy efficient than the average appliance on the market. It does not tell you that the product was manufacturing
    using sustainable practices, that it was made locally, or that it is made out of recycled or renewable materials.
    • For an appliance such as an air conditioner, you will want to know the SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) rating. In the U.S., any whole house air conditioner that is sold has to have at least a SEER 13 rating, but many window units have only a SEER 9 or SEER 10 rating. To have an Energy Star rating, an air conditioner must be rated as at least SEER 14. Upgrading to an air conditioner with a higher SEER rating can not only help the environment, but can also save a homeowner hundreds of dollars per year, depending on what climate the home is located in.
    • For a furnace, you will want to know the AFUE, or Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency rating. To get the Energy Star certification, a furnace must have an AFUE rating of 85 percent or higher – which means that Energy Star certified units may be as much as 15 percent more efficient than standard furnaces.
  3. How did this product get here? Is the lumber I see labeled with a green certification sticker in my local building supply store grown locally? Or does it travel to me from someplace in South America? Sustainably grown materials leave just as large a carbon footprint as anything else if they are
    shipped from across the world and across the country to get to me.
  4. Are all green products safe for use in home construction? Last May, Environment & Human Health, Inc., a Connecticut environmental group, revealed that LEED-certified building materials may not
    be adequately tested for their effects on human health. The LEED-certification process is heavily weighted toward energy efficiency and conservation (admittedly a noble goal), making it possible for a product to become LEED-certified even if it is not awarded ANY points in the indoor air quality
    category. In the November/December issue of E Magazine, Dr. Carrie Redlich of the Yale School of Medicine comments: “We see patients who go out of their way to make their house green, and the greener it is, the more likely we are to see them [in the hospital].”
  5. Not all ratings hold up in practice.Conditions in your home may vary from conditions during testing. It is wise to talk to others who have used the appliance you are considering purchasing, or read online reviews by other consumers who have experience using the device in their homes. Often
    consumer reviews will alert you to potential problems with installation or caution you about aspects of an appliance’s use that may not be covered in the instruction book.
  6. Ratings don’t matter if an appliance is improperly installed. No appliance will live up to its green certification or Energy Star rating if it is badly installed. In addition, air conditioners and furnaces are only as efficient as the homes they cool and heat. If doors and windows are left open, or if there are drafty areas, heat is likely to pass into or out of the home, reducing the energy efficiency of your
    furnace or air conditioner.
  7. Ratings will become out of date if appliances are not properly maintained. Furnaces and air conditioners need to have their filters cleaned or replaced regularly, at least once a year. Some air conditioners in some climates need their filters cleaned once a month in order to operate at maximum efficiency. It is also important to clean coils and blowers regularly. In addition, air
    conditioners often develop drain problems that can result in clogs, causing the air conditioner to malfunction.
  8. Bear in mind that even green consumption is still consumption and still uses resources. Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal ran an article on green luxury homes. Isn’t that an oxymoron? Even when you have purchased a highly rated green product, it is still important to keep practicing sustainability – which means running appliances such as air conditioners and dishwashers as little as possible, conserving energy, and climate-controlling the smallest space that you can reasonably live in, rather than living in a large space just because you
    can afford to.

Like you, I have other things to do besides reading labels on appliances and becoming a one man consumer reporter on my own behalf. It is necessary to find a happy medium – a moderate approach that allows us to function in the world, and buy the materials that we need for our homes, without obsessing over every single item. But I think there is a moderate approach. We must all use our own
critical thinking skills and the research tools that are at our disposal, rather than expecting the same corporations who make and market a product, to critically review it as well.

George Rollins is a home enthusiast at, a site
that not only has extensive information on furnaces, boilers and
air conditioners, but also includes consumer reviews and tips on choosing
HVAC contractors. George has a passion for educating consumers on
home renovation and improvements, as he feels that the right information
helps consumer choose more wisely.

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5 responses

  1. The one benefit that having so many standards is that each is bringing another idea to the table. The problem is that we do have flaws in these standards. I have been hoping that we begin discussing the different standards in some umbrella organization. ANSI 700 has its benefits as does the LEED program. I do find that health seems to be a standard that is overlooked in the building industry, mainly because there is not enough information out there.

  2. Does anyone have more detailed information on what was meant by this statement: In the November/December issue of E Magazine, Dr. Carrie Redlich of the Yale School of Medicine comments: “We see patients who go out of their way to make their house green, and the greener it is, the more likely we are to see them [in the hospital].”

    For example- what illnesses? is there a peer reviewed study that shows this correlation?


  3. Everyone always has some kind of study about some kind of food and finds some kind of new reason for it to not be healthy. Today you can unfortunately not be certain of what is good for you and what is not. All you can do is, if be on a balanced diet and get in a little bit of everything everyday so that you can take in all the important vitamins and minerals necessary to live a healthy life.

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