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Last updated: July 2014



The Future of Energy Use


Traditional domestic appliances – our washing machines, cookers, fridges – are expected to consume about 9.2% less energy by 2020, if all existing and planned policy interventions (mainly through the Ecodesign Directive) are successful.[1]

That will go some way to households meeting the 2020 emissions reduction target of at least 34% on 1990 levels.[1]

Cartoon by Chris Madden

But it will only work if consumers buy energy efficient products. A 2009 survey of Which? readers found that 58% of respondents thought that product performance was more important than environmental impact.[6]

We also have to be careful not to fall victim to the rebound effect. This occurs when you buy an energy efficient machine but your energy usage, and therefore carbon footprint, doesn’t fall because you have unwittingly changed your habits and you end up using more energy than you expect to. If we are serious about sustainable consumption we need more than better products.

We need to unstitch a whole set of relations between products and what people do in everyday life and stitch them back together into a pattern that supports sustainability. We can’t assume that owning energy-efficient appliances means we don’t have to use them carefully or even turn them off.


The Ecodesign Directive

The EU Ecodesign Directive establishes a framework under which manufacturers of energy-using products are obliged to reduce the energy consumption and other negative environmental impacts occurring throughout the product life cycle. It is complemented by the Energy Labelling Directive.

The Ecodesign Directive sets minimum requirements for energy and environmental performance which manufacturers must meet in order to legally bring their product to the market. Energy labelling requirements through the EU Energy Label aim at providing consumers with the information about that performance.

Periodic revision of the requirements has meant that the bar is continually being raised so that less energy efficient models are no longer allowed to be sold in Europe. But critics say that the minimum requirements are not high enough to truly transform the market. They are too quickly outpaced by market development. If labels and Ecodesign requirements are not sufficiently forward-looking and up-to-date, their effectiveness on the market is seriously diminished.

Ideally, the top of the scale should be hardly achievable by current products and correspond to a ‘nearly zero energy consuming’ target. This would better ensure that room for innovation and differentiation is always available at the top.



Threats to energy labelling

There are fears that the forthcoming EU-US trade deal, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), could overturn many hard-won environmental policies in Europe, like the Ecodesign Directive and the Energy Label. European consumer regulation could be watered down to focus on reducing regulatory ‘barriers’ to trade, ‘barriers’ which serve fundamental purposes such as the protection of the environment.

One of TTIP’s stated objectives is “eliminating or reducing technical barriers to trade” by harmonising existing standards, meaning existing standards would be changed to new, internationally-agreed ones. Energy efficiency labels and bans on HFCs in fridges are potential examples of such ‘technical barriers’.[5]

More information on the TTIP and the TTIP and privatisation.



The EU Energy Label

The EU Energy efficiency label was first introduced in 1995 and gives products a rating based on their energy consumption. It is a mandatory label and the rating is based on data supplied by the manufacturers themselves.

All of the below products are legally obliged to display energy efficiency information at the point of sale – if you can’t see it, ask for it. There is currently no Energy Label for microwaves, hobs or gas ovens.

Products currently carrying an EU energy label:

  • Washing machines
  • Fridges, freezers and fridge-freezers
  • Dishwashers
  • Electric ovens.



What’s on the EU Energy Label?

The energy efficiency of the appliance is rated in terms of a set of energy efficiency classes ranging from A+++ to A+ for washing machines, dishwashers and fridges, and A-G for electric ovens.

The label also shows the product’s actual energy consumption, usually given as kilowatt hours per year (kWh/yr). Other data relating to capacity, water consumption and noise levels may also be given, depending on the appliance.



Shortcomings of the Energy Label

An EU Energy Label can give you a good at-a-glance evaluation of how energy efficient a product is. But using it to decipher which product is the most energy efficient on the market may be less straightforward, for example, when a large number of models receive the same energy rating. In this case, the energy consumption (kWh/yr figure) is useful for comparing them.

  • The rating may be calculated in a way that’s not representative of how people use a product in real-life. For example, most people wash on 40°C normal cotton and synthetic programmes but the EU Energy label for washing machines looks at a weighted average of 60°C and 40°C cotton full and partial load cycles.[2]
  • Two different-sized appliances could carry the same energy efficiency rating,[2] but a smaller product will use less energy. You need to do a calculation to factor in its volume or capacity – divide kWh/yr by capacity to get kWh/yr per unit.
  • A smaller A rated appliance could use less energy than a larger A+ rated one. Check the energy consumption kWh/yr figure.
  • Which? tests have found huge differences in the energy use of similar-sized fridge-freezers with the same energy label.[2] 
  • The proliferation of A rated products (including A+, A++, A+++) is confusing to the consumer. The energy classes could be redefined to make it easier.


Defra’s Market Transformation Program (MTP) used to test a sample of appliance models to see whether they performed in accordance with the declarations that the manufacturers had made on the Energy Label. But we couldn’t find any evidence of that happening since 2009. Defra did not respond to our emails about the tests. It seems that these checks have been dropped which would mean that there is no independent testing of the information provided by manufacturers.





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1 The elephant in the living room: how our appliances and gadgets are trampling the green dream, Energy Saving Trust, September 2011  

2 Which? Energy labels explained, viewed May 2014 – www.which.co.uk/energy/saving-money/guides/energy-labels-explained  

3 Saving energy through better products and appliances, DEFRA 16 June 2011  

4 Cool Revision report, October 2013, coolproducts  

5 Regulatory rollback: how TTIP puts the environment at risk., european environmental bureau, 21 january 2014  

6 Which? Response to the DEFRA consultation on saving energy through better products and appliances, March 2010