The EPA’s Energy Star program, for nearly two decades the nation’s trusted label for energy-efficient products from washing machines to bath fans to computer monitors, has recently come under fire from the government and the media amid allegations of faulty certifications, lack of verifications, and potential decline in brand clout.

The most recent, and perhaps the most damaging, incident resulted from a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation in which 15 fake products—including a gas-powered alarm clock—earned the Energy Star label. Four of the 20 submitted were required to provide third-party verification, but of those, two were eventually allowed through because Energy Star didn’t verify the requested information.

“At briefings on GAO's investigation, [Department of Energy] and EPA officials agreed that the program is currently based on self-certifications by manufacturers,” the GAO report says. “However, officials stated there are after-market tests and self-policing that ensure standards are maintained.” 

The EPA released a statement following the GAO report, stating that it uses a series of checks to ensure Energy Star-labeled products save energy and reduce emissions.

“We welcome all efforts, internal or external, to improve the program, and this report raises important issues,” the statement said. “That's why we have started an enhanced testing program and have already taken enforcement actions against companies that have violated the rules.”

This isn’t the first time concerns over self-certification have landed the EPA program in the spotlight. In November 2008, several LG French-door refrigerators lost their Energy Star label following findings that the manufacturer’s test procedures underestimated the appliances’ energy use.

And amid these woes are continued allegations from manufacturers and the media that the Energy Star label no longer represents only the most efficient products, even though the EPA releases new, more stringent requirements for categories every few years.

For example, just before the LG news broke in 2008, Consumer Reports, a non-profit publication that reviews products and services, wrote an article saying that Energy Star “hasn’t kept up with the times” because of lax qualifying standards, out-of-date testing procedures, and, of course, self-certification.

This February, The Washington Post posed a similar question: If the majority of products are above average, what separates the “better” from the “middle of the road”? The article also cited a report from a government auditor that raised concerns about the high efficiency of some products that don’t carry the label. “The performance results of Energy Star and non-Energy Star products call into question the assumptions used to calculate energy savings and greenhouse gas reductions attributed to this program,” the report said. “Without an enhanced testing program, including the testing of non-Energy Star products, EPA cannot be certain Energy Star products are the more energy efficient and cost-effective choice for consumers.”

In its response, the EPA stated, “Contrary to the suggestion of the article, no matter what the market share of Energy Star-qualified products, consumers who purchase a labeled product get one that will contribute to a cleaner environment and save them money without sacrifice in performance.

“EPA works to continually improve the Energy Star program,” the agency continued. “EPA and DOE recently signed an agreement to ensure that product specifications are up to date. Both agencies are committed to evolving Energy Star to meet consumers' needs while setting the bar higher and higher for energy efficiency across a wide variety of product categories.”

The negative publicity comes at a time when the Energy Star brand is more prominent than ever: Stimulus programs from the Obama Administration specifically point to the label as a qualifier for certain product rebates.

Time will tell whether the Energy Star label’s reputation can be restored. Check back with EcoHome for additional coverage of the EPA’s plans and the industry’s response.

Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor for EcoHome.