It's buyer beware when it comes to untested green products

| by John Johnson
It's buyer beware when it comes to untested green products

False advertising claims have been made in most industries at some point, and now misleading and inaccurate marketing information is surfacing in the green home sector. The U.S government is clamping down on firms that practice “green washing," that is, misleadingly advertising or promoting product features to take advantage of the green movement.

This week, the Federal Trade Commission sued a California-based manufacturer to stop the firm from misleading consumers by exaggerating the light-output and life-expectancy of its LED bulbs.

The agency filed a complaint charging that since 2008, Lights of America Inc. had overstated the specifications of its LED bulbs on packages and in brochures. The agency also charged that Lights of America misled consumers about how the brightness of its LED bulbs compares to traditional incandescent lights. It was the first time the FTC has challenged a manufacturer’s LED marketing claims.

Manufacturers and retailers have recently begun selling LED bulbs for household use because they are a higher-efficiency, longer-lasting alternative to incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs. Although the initial price tag may be higher, well designed and manufactured LED bulbs save on energy costs and last much longer than other types of light bulbs.

Brian Halliwell, vice president of sales and marketing for Lights of America, says the FTC isn’t taking into account that standards were not established for the products in question when they were first released. “Our stance is that we did not make any fraudulent or deceptive claims,” he said. “At the time we introduced these products, the standards that are available now (for product life and brightness) were not in existence. We’ve always been innovators and the first one out with new technologies.”

As green homebuilding becomes more popular, green washing could seep into a host of areas, including windows, heating systems, insulation, anywhere a lack of knowledge could make a homeowner vulnerable to false or inflated product claims. Nate Kredich, vice president of residential market development for the U.S. Green Building Council, says that’s one more reason why homebuilders and homeowners should insist on third-party quality certifications of green homes.

“Everybody wants to build green, but when the rubber meets the road, ideally you need a third-party certifying that it’s green,” Kredich said. “The FTC is cracking down on green washing, so it’s increasingly important for builders to be able to back up their claims” that a house has been built to accepted green standards.

Due to the relative newness of LED lighting for the home, there is a high level of consumer confusion about the performance of the products. According to research firm Strategies Unlimited, the rapidly growing LED market is expected to represent a $5 billion in sales globally by 2012.

“There is a ton of consumer confusion out there now and that’s one of the issues we have with that light source,” said David Orgish, a LEED-certified electrical engineering and lighting design consultant with O'Mahony & Myer in San Francisco. “Everybody says you need LED, but the marketing information out there isn’t always trustworthy, and we need to educate our clients on that fact.”

In the case of Lights of America, the FTC alleges that in many instances its LED bulbs produced significantly less light, as measured in lumens, than the company claimed in its promotional materials. For example, one bulb was promoted as producing 90 lumens of light output, but Lights of America’s own tests showed it produced only 43 lumens.

Also, in many cases, the FTC claims that Lights of America deceptively compared the brightness of its LED light bulbs to that of incandescent bulbs. For example, the firm claimed that one of its LED lantern bulbs could replace a 40-watt incandescent bulb. However, while the typical 40-watt incandescent bulb produces about 400 lumens, the Lights of America LED bulb produced only 74 lumens.

Moreover, the FTC complaint states that in many instances, Lights of America’s LED bulbs would not last as long as the company’s promotional materials said they would. In one case, for example, the firm said that one of its LED recessed bulbs would last 30,000 hours. Independent tests, however, showed that the bulb would not last as long as claimed because it lost 80 percent of its light output after only 1,000 hours.

To address these issues, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) is in the process of publishing standards for brightness and the expected life of LED bulbs. UL published safety guidelines for LEDs in 2009.

“Standards are gaining traction, and that will serve to level the playing field,” Orgish said. “Unfortunately there has been a little bit of a back lash because the hype was so great about this light source that people started using it without knowing all the facts. People are finding out now it’s not always performing the way they anticipated.”

Topics: Lighting

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