Branding environmentalism

EnergyStar, LEED, and shifting social mores

It’s 6 a.m. when your gasoline-powered alarm clock chatters to life, rousing you in time to make a few last changes to your term paper before rushing off to class. You slap it before glancing across your room as your “air purifier,” which is actually a feather-duster taped to a space heater, hums to life.

What do these two unlikely dorm appliances have in common? If they actually existed, they’d be emblazoned with EnergyStar decals proclaiming the approval of the United States Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In reality, both are figments of the Government Accountability Office’s imagination which, along with a dozen other made-up products, actually earned the energy-saving label after apparently minimal review by the two federal agencies. Although the “air purifier” (literally, a duster taped to a heater — check the GAO’s 27-page report on the EnergyStar program released at the end of last month for a picture) might be the most ludicrous of the products, it’s hardly the most troubling. The list of fakes includes a refrigerator, a washing machine, and a furnace that, with the EnergyStar label, would qualify for tax credits and rebates designed to encourage “greener” consumption.

When the EnergyStar program started in 1992, it hoped to — and indeed managed to — motivate Americans to shell out extra dollars for energy-efficient products that would reduce electric bills and environmental footprints. (Come to think of it, that gas-fired alarm clock would be off the grid.) Today, many household products carry the EnergyStar logo, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act earmarks $300 million for state rebate programs rewarding energy-efficient purchases.

The problem is that in 18 years, 40,000 products have garnered the EnergyStar label — far more than any federally funded agency could actually hope to fully evaluate. And if the GAO report is anything to go by, it’s easy to sneak a product in without anyone challenging completely bogus energy use statistics. Meanwhile, plenty of products without EnergyStar labels are just as efficient as their marked counterparts: Their manufacturers simply didn’t want to bother with the paperwork.

Still, the EnergyStar logo moves products — and lets manufacturers sell at a premium — because consumers trust the Federal imprimatur. Indeed, EnergyStar isn’t the only form of green branding that’s taken off.

The United States Green Building Council introduced the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program ten years ago, and if you search “LEED Certification” today, you’ll come up with hundreds of news hits describing new green buildings all over the country. The system certifies construction projects according to its own green color code (LEED certified all the way up to LEED platinum), and is widely credited with popularizing environmentally-friendly building practices.

It’s a well-deserved claim. Two federal agencies and twenty-two states have policies that explicitly require or encourage LEED certification. Thousands of design professionals spend hundreds of dollars each earning LEED accreditations. Project managers swallow thousands of dollars in certification costs (unlike EnergyStar stickers, LEED ratings are actually hard to come by) to obtain the brand’s marketable cachet.

But in the course of maneuvering through all the Green Building Council’s red tape, are we really, well, LEEDing ourselves astray?

More and more, analysts, environmental watchdog groups, and even construction gurus are saying, “Yes.”

A construction project gains its LEED ranking after earning a preordained number of points from the 110 possible listed by the USGBC. The point system has long been criticized for its inflexibility: water conservation in Phoenix is no better rewarded than in rainy Mobile, Alabama (actually wetter than Seattle, everyone’s favorite dreary-day whipping boy). And rescuing the embodied energy by renovating an existing building (it costs CO2 to tear down an old structure and build a new one from freshly manufactured materials) earns a paltry four points, only twice what you’d earn by, say, plopping a bike rack outside your door and putting a snazzy LEED-accredited architect on your design team.

After much criticism, the USGBC revised its point system last year (though all of the above factlets are still true). In the spirit of the GAO’s report on EnergyStar, I started wondering just what would meet the LEED guidelines as I glanced through them last week.

I came up with this satirical shack: stack ten pieces of 10’ by 10’ plywood (to meet the minimum floor-space requirement) manufactured within 500 miles (1 point). To save on costs, don’t pave any new parking spaces (2 points) or do any landscaping (no potable water use outdoors, 4 points). By skipping walls, you can ensure natural light and plenty of fresh air (3 points). Slap a solar panel on top and write some computer code modeling energy efficiency, and the shack accrues another dozen or so points. If the energy use was actually measured and held true to model results, the USGBC would throw another couple points in, like some weird double-bonus for actually doing what was promised. If the shack was built somewhere on MIT’s campus, we’d get another six points for proximity to public transportation and be well on our way to the 40-point LEED certification minimum.

All right, it’s a completely ridiculous hypothetical that would never get past the LEED police even if we had the thousands of dollars needed to pay them to have a look. But some recently certified projects (glass-walled buildings that must be simultaneously cooled and heated; solar panels obscured by upper-story balconies; and so on) seem just as troubling. It’s easy to cherry-pick from the LEED list and earn your rating while missing the overall point altogether.

So why do we cling to branding systems like EnergyStar and LEED?

Simply put: Because we are human. Trusting someone else’s review process is easier than conducting our own research, and it’s easier to write a quick press release when buzzwords like “Platinum” and “EPA-recommended” are at your fingertips.

Our society is transitioning into a new era of environmental responsibility. It’s now socially acceptable — even, in some places, de rigueur — to show your “green” side by driving a Prius, putting solar panels on your home, and maintaining a compost pile. But we must guard against falling into a new rut: jumping on a brand bandwagon without demanding proof of actual environmental benefits.

The days of popularizing the green movement are ending. Now we must challenge ourselves to take subtler and more holistic approaches to living sustainably.

Maybe that means building our LEED statement shack after all. I wouldn’t mind occupying it on May 18 and 19, when the Council’s annual meeting convenes in Washington, D.C. Just don’t let me forget my feather dusters and alarm clock.

Holly Moeller is a graduate student in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Biological Oceanography. She welcomes reader feedback, and offers to help with shack construction, at hollyvm@mit.edu. “Seeing Green” runs on alternate Tuesdays.