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Playing Hide-And-Seek With Energy Efficiency Information

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View Jonathan Wiener's blog posts
22 July 2011, 9:12 AM
Groups ask FTC to take the mystery out of appliance information

Today, we begin with a quiz:

Which of the following should online consumers have to do to be able to evaluate the operating costs of an appliance?

  1. Scroll to the very bottom of a long page of text, then visit other websites and do the same until they have enough data points to make their own comparisons.
  2. Click on a button labeled "Larger Photo."
  3. Follow a link labeled "Manual."
  4. Find and follow a link labeled "Take a Product Tour," and then select a tab labeled "Documents."

The answer, of course, is none of the above. Energy efficiency information is an important consideration for those who want to know the real costs of appliances before purchasing them, and consumers are legally entitled to it. But many online retailers require consumers who want it to jump through just these sorts of ridiculous hoops, as you can see here, here, here and here. (Or, click through the slideshow below to see screenshots.)

  • Scroll all the way to the bottom of the 'Features & Specifications' list to find the operating cost ... and then repeat the hunt on other online appliance sites to be able to make comparisons.
  • It makes perfect sense: the operating cost of this appliance is  found by clicking on the 'Larger Photo' link.
  • Equally helpful, the operating cost for this appliance is buried in the PDF manual.
  • If all else fails, 'Take a Product Tour,' and click through five tabs to find your way to 'Documents,' and, finally, the operating cost of the appliance.

Earthjustice, today, asks the Federal Trade Commission to end this practice.

A petition we are filing on behalf of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, Consumers Union, and Public Citizen calls upon the agency to require online retailers to prominently display the yellow Energy Guide label for the appliances they sell online.

FTC rules currently require these labels—which include both an estimate of annual operating costs and a comparison to similar products—to be prominent and visible for consumers shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. But online, where space is even more abundant, retailers can simply provide links (or sometimes a series of links) leading to the label, or just bury the estimated annual operating costs somewhere on the page without giving any comparative information.

U.S. retailers sold more than $1 billion of appliances online last year, increasing that figure even as total appliance sales fell. As online sales continue to increase, ensuring that consumers have access to the Energy Guide label becomes more and more important.

I've blogged previously about how the Energy Guide label, in spite of its shortcomings, can be a convenient way to help consumers save money and energy. But the information isn't going to help consumers if they can't find it.

Please join us in asking FTC to require that online retailers make Energy Guide labels easy to find. Leave a comment here, or send us an e-mail, letting FTC know whether you find the examples above (or others you've encountered) helpful. We'll collect your feedback and provide it to FTC.

And in the coming days, I’ll be writing about steps Earthjustice is taking to address online retailers who aren't providing any information, and what you can do to help.

Frankly, this is rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. We here in the US are seriously overpopulated. Reducing our population would be far more helpful. A good target to begin with might be about 100 million, to be achieved by natural attrition, free abortion on demand, and strenuous national birth policy changes.

Yer right, as far as ya go, but it ain't just the US that's way overpopulated. We, as a species, are victims of our own success.

The Indians of the Pacific Northwest were able to keep their populations down to below carrying capacity by various means of birth control and didn't have to resort to warfare.

In other places, (ie Papua New Guinea, the Amazon) people did use warfare and massacres to keep the population down.

Other places (ie India and China) female infanticide and subjugation of women were attempts to solve the problem.

Over the long term (if we get one) I think the only answer I like is birth control. Once someone is born, room has to be made for them.

Over the short term, we're going to see more of situations like what's happening in the Horn of Africa. Way too many people. It's not a conclusion that I come to happily. And I'm glad I'm not a decision maker.

What are we gonna do with all the Bangladeshis when the rising oceans take away their food producing regions?

How about the hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians who are dependent on fossil water for their crops, and the water is running out?

It's a conumdrum wrapped in a paradox. Our best feature, or at least the one I like most about us, is our sympathy for others. Neanderthal bones have been found that showed that: A) this guy was hardly useful at all. His leg was broken in a way that not only he not able to hunt, he couldn't even forage. And B) They carried him for years.

Isn't that great? Doesn't that make ya feel good about being human? Doncha wanna be the kind a guy that pulls yer neighbor through the tough places?

I'm 67, so I don't have to worry about procreating with the kind of girls that take me home. but I have to think that I can better put this extra $10 this month into some kind of infrastructure around here that'll give my grandson a more pleasant (and sustaienable) life than sending it off to Sudan to feed some poor bastard that's gonna need another $10 next month.

I don't think Homo sapiens is gonna come up with the answer. But I do think Gaeia or Ma Nature will. I think we bleeding hearts will have to get used to hearing about massive population reductions, whether they be through disease, natural disasters or war.

I hope a few of us (including my grandson!) make it through.

It is important, not only for individual citizens, but for humanity as we attempt to preserve our planet, for us to have readily available information to help us make the best possible choices in the way we use energy. Requiring simple, honest, and prominently displayed energy labeling would be a valuable help.

This informative article does make me wonder---why is the requirement for online sales more lax than for brick/mortar? Who allowed for the difference? Perhaps online appliance sales, being relatively new, doesn't yet have a "system", or more cynically, perhaps it is a matter of getting away with whatever the merchant can.
I do think that addressing this matter is extremely important as I believe that too many people would rather chose what they purchase based on other things (i.e. appearance, immediate price, etc.) than energy efficiency. I equate it to the difference that the requisite FDA Nutritional Facts labels have made in our food purchases. Sure you can ignore them, but when you reach for a bag of Oreos, that label is really in your face.

Let me second the point about the Oreos. I used to grab muffins from an Au Bon Pain on my commute home, until I noticed the calories (usually around 600) listed right next to the price. Personally, I like the example of FDA's graphic new cigarette labels.

Your question about why there are laxer standards for the websites, where information is very easily shared, is a good one. As far as I can tell, it has no defensible answer. I initially thought the difference was a vestige of when "catalog" could only mean "paper catalog," and nobody was looking for appliances online. But websites actually had to provide all the information on the Energy Guide label right up until 2007. At that point, FTC decided that online retailers could leave out comparative information, or just provide a link to the Energy Guide label, saying:

Consumers viewing catalogs are likely to see information for a much larger number of models than consumers in a showroom. Thus, catalog shoppers do not have the same need for comparability ranges. In addition, because the range information in the paper catalogs cannot always be presented in the same form as they appear on the label, the display of range information in a catalog may cause confusion or fail to provide significant benefit to consumers. While the benefits of range disclosures in catalogs may be small, the burdens of providing this information can be significant. The burdens often fall on retailers who are not producing and labeling the products themselves.

In the petition we filed Friday, we knock down each of these assertions, none of which make any sense in the context of shopping online. FTC largely reversed its position in the recent TV labeling rule, requiring the prominent display of the Energy Guide label but allowing it to be hyperlinked in the form of a Energy Guide logo, as with this listing from Walmart's website. We're concerned that shoppers won't understand that logo is a link, or will mistake it for an Energy Star certification or some other endorsement.

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