New Executive Order is the Grim Reaper for EPEAT

April 6th, 2015

Order will lead to death of purchasing program for greener electronics

President Obama’s recent Executive Order 13693 set forth some excellent lead-by-example goals for how the federal government must reduce energy and water use, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote alternative energies.

But it contains some seemingly harmless legal jargon, that if left unchanged, will result in the death of  the federal EPEAT program for purchasing greener electronics.

Steps for killing EPEATThe EPEAT program gives purchasers a way to identify electronic products that meet a set of environmental standards.  The program has been used for several years by federal purchasers, state agencies, universities, non-profit, and private companies in the U.S. and increasingly in other countries. But now the Obama Administration is turning its back on this very successful program.

While this Executive Order is titled, “Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade,” it’s mostly about energy, energy, energy, water, and energy. But with this order, the Administration also quietly revoked the two previous Executive Orders (13423 and 13514) which established and maintained the very promising (albeit wonkily named) EPEAT program for electronics and which also required that 95% of the electronics purchased by federal agencies must be registered EPEAT products (for those categories where there is an EPEAT standard).

The EPEAT standards include energy efficiency, but also many other crucial sustainability issues, like limiting the use of hazardous chemicals, design for recyclability, sustainable materials use, use of certified recyclers, and sustainable packaging.

Federal agencies won’t have to buy EPEAT products

The new executive order never mentions EPEAT. It does try to claim to “promote sustainable acquisition and procurement” and specifies two ways for federal agencies to do that, beginning with the new fiscal year (October 2016). One way is to purchase environmentally preferable products or services that meet or exceed specifications, standards, or labels recommended by the EPA.

But it’s the other method (Option B) that spells the beginning of the end of the EPEAT program. With these references, the Executive Order allows federal agencies to buy products that meet practically any kind of voluntary standard, as long as the standard was developed using a so-called “consensus” stakeholder process:

(B) meet environmental performance criteria developed or adopted by voluntary consensus standards bodies consistent with section 12(d) of the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995 (Public Law 104-113) and OMB Circular A-119.

“Consensus” process doesn’t mean a fair and balanced process for standards development

That sounds good, right, using voluntary standards developed by a “consensus” process including a wide group of stakeholders to identify what’s a preferable product? But in reality, the use of a so-called “consensus” process is no guarantee that the standard will be a strong standard, or provide meaningful guidance for federal purchasers to identify greener products. In fact, when it comes to sustainability standards, these consensus processes can be quite the opposite. They are easily dominated by companies that make and sell the products (and the chemical companies that supply them) despite other stakeholders participation. And many manufacturers typically don’t support criteria in these standards (even optional ones) that their products can’t already meet. So sustainability standards developed under the usual “consensus” process (without some additional requirements) are not likely to set a very high bar for sustainability.

That’s because most of these “consensus” standards use rules (“essential requirements”)  developed by the American National Standards Institute or ANSI, which allow any single category of stakeholders to have as much as half of the votes, and calls that “balanced.”  Any industry association can put together a process that technically meets that very low bar of a consensus standard, and then simply take what the industry is already doing and brand it as “green.”  If this language is allowed to stand, government purchasing standards will devolve into a “lowest common denominator” approach favored by ANSI rules.

Strongest sustainability standards go beyond ANSI rules

In fact, this is such a problem that the strongest sustainability standards being used today – including LEED standards for green buildings, the Forest Stewardship Initiative (FSC) standard for lumber, and Fair Trade standards for farmers and other producers around the world (to name just a few) were developed outside the ANSI process because the groups developing them wanted to avoid the manufacturer domination that occurs with so many “consensus” processes. You can see the difference by looking at the high-bar standards’ weaker counterparts, developed under the ANSI rules, like Green Globes (for buildings) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) for lumber.

Why would the administration allow such a low bar for environmental standards, when they could easily have pointed to the EPA’s Guidelines for Product Environmental Performance Standards and Ecolabels for Voluntary Use in Federal Procurement?  The EPA has done some very good work over the last four years developing guidelines for what kinds of standards and labels are worthy of the federal government’s use.  Their current draft (about to be piloted) includes not just attributes of how the standards are created (like transparency, and balance), but also other  critical things like whether there is an entity attached to the standard that can actually verify whether those claiming to conform to the standard actually do so.

Did the Administration unwittingly make these changes that spell the end of EPEAT? Or did the Obama Administration yield to pressure from the electronics industry? We know that the federal government has been the target of a relentless lobbying campaign by the industry association, the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), who is unhappy with the EPEAT program, which has some additional guidelines that go beyond ANSI . In fact, after much debate, ITI lost a key internal struggle in 2013 when the EPEAT stakeholders voted to leave IEEE as their standards development organization (SDO) because of their unfair rules and switched to NSF as an alternative that provides a more level playing field and a more balanced process. Fearing a loss of their control of the process, ITI retaliated and started their lobbying campaign against EPEAT.  Given the current language in the Executive Order, their campaign seems to have been successful.    Even though there has been a robust stakeholder group (including ETBC) working productively over the last 18 months to resolve the concerns raised by the electronics companies with EPEAT program administration and verification,  their lobbyist has continued to press for steps that will kill the program.

Will this Administration be remembered for killing EPEAT?

We are surprised that Obama Administration would want to be known (among other things) as the Administration that killed the EPEAT program.  What a shame, after so many years of time and effort by so many people to help the government use its purchasing power to promote sustainability.

But that will be their legacy if they don’t  take some immediate action to undue the harm they have set in motion. Today, we sent the Obama Administration a letter outlining the changes they could make to stop this unfortunate trajectory:

  1. They could modify the Executive Order to remove Option B and add in EPEAT; or
  2. In their implementing instructions to agencies for carrying out the order, they could:
    • Recommend the use of EPEAT for electronics purchases; and
    • Allow purchasers to use the consensus standards option ONLY if the EPA cannot recommend another standard or label for that product category

This can be fixed but only if the Whitehouse takes swift action.

NOTE: If you are with an organization, company, agency, school, or a certified electronics recycling company who would not like to see the EPEAT program disappear, please let the Whitehouse know. Send a letter to the Federal Environmental Executive, at the Whitehouse.

Click here for a sample letter.