In today’s society we hear a lot about energy saving devices, efficient appliances, and gadgets that can help us control our energy usage. Some of these products are excellent and helpful in reducing our energy footprint. Programmable thermostats, motion sensors on lights, LED lighting and hands-free faucets jump to mind as affordable and useful upgrades to our homes or offices. Other products are not so helpful, just a re-marketed version of the same thing. These less-than-helpful products rely on “green-washing” as a marking tool rather than actual problem solving. It is difficult as consumers to distinguish between the two.
How can we be mindful of conservation when making choices about which so-called “green” products we should invest in?
The mindset of conservation applies to our energy consumption on a few levels. Personally, we want to save our money by not purchasing goods that we do not need, and by reducing our consumption of expensive resources like energy and water. From a global environmental viewpoint, we consider how and where a product is manufactured, and what happens to it when it is no longer useful.
Before making any new purchase, ask yourself if you really need this item, and what is the smallest or simplest one that you can get away with? A few years ago I was asked to research energy efficient appliances. I looked at the energy standards for dozens of refrigerators and was surprised to learn that the refrigerator that my husband and I had bought when we moved into our new house used less electricity than most of the commercial “high-efficiency” models advertised. The reason was that when we bought our refrigerator, we were tight on both money and space. We bought the smallest one they had at the store, and only paid extra for an icemaker in the freezer. With no ice dispenser to compromise the air tightness of the unit, and a small cubic footprint, our little fridge was a model of efficiency. As a general rule, although not every time, smaller and simpler is more efficient.
When purchasing an item, don’t focus solely on the cost. Often with appliances that use energy or water, a higher up-front investment saves money in the long-tem. A higher SEER air conditioner or more efficient furnace (depending on your climate) can cut your monthly electric or gas enough to outweigh the extra cost of the more efficient unit. Solar or wind-power systems can also be a high up-front cost but may pay off in the long term in terms of power savings, rebates, and tax incentives. Government websites such as Energystar.gov offer calculators that can help you determine if the long-term savings outweigh a short-term investment.
Find out if you can get a comparable product on the second-hand market. Re-use is a great way to reduce the global cost of manufacturing. Many cities have building supply salvage stores where shoppers can get second-hand fixtures, cabinets, and other building materials. Locally based websites that list classified can also be good sources of used items.
Consider the full lifecycle of the product. How long you will use it and what will happen to it when you are finished with it? Keep it out of the landfill if at all possible. Some stores and manufacturers will commit to taking their products back when they have completed their useful life. Ask the store what they can do for the one you are replacing. Do they send them to a landfill or a reputable recycling company? Earth911.com is an excellent resource for learning how to get rid of electronics and chemicals that should not be thrown out with the trash.
Finally, focus some attention on the company that manufactures the product. The EPA’s EnergyStar website is an excellent resource to start with. Then look into where the item is manufactured. Is it produced in your region, or on the other side of the world? Does the manufacturer have an independent third-party certification? A manufacturer that can point to an ISO 14000, GreenSeal or other third-party certification is able to provide evidence that they can meet certain environmental standards. Finally, take a look at the manufacturer’s website. Do they have an environmental sustainability or corporate social responsibility (CSR) program? These programs require transparency in reporting the environmental and social impact of a company.
Energy, water, and money are all precious resources in your home or business, and from a global standpoint. In order to maintain a mindset of conservation, take into account the long-term value of the products you purchase. Choose what is most efficient and well manufactured. Use the resources available to you, some of which are listed below, to make an informed choice.
International Organization for Standardization (including the ISO 140000 series for environmental management)
Written by Janna Lancaster, Contributor