How Sears and JCPenney Won Energy-Saving Awards -- From the Agency They Promoted

Last Updated Nov 2, 2010 1:53 PM EDT

Big-box stores are often thought of as hopeless energy hogs. But Sears Holdings (SHLD) and JCPenney (JCP) are proving big retailers can slash energy costs and reduce their carbon footprint. The companies also got a bunch of great publicity out of the deal -- from the government program the retailers promoted in their stores.

Here's how the one-hand-washing-the-other maneuver worked:

Both retailers recently won Environmental Excellence awards from the federal Environmental Protection Agency for individual stores that slashed energy use. At the Sears store in Glen Burnie, Md., managers used thermal-imaging cameras to find where heat was escaping from buildings, then replaced worn or missing insulation and weatherstripping. Heating and cooling systems were cleaned and tested to make sure they were operating at peak efficiency. Store teams made it their mission to turn off lights and appliances and keep doors closed. Result: a 32 percent reduction in energy consumption.
JCPenney's Orange, Calif., store used an "Orange Power Rangers" campaign including signs and stickers to keep staff focused on turning off lights and appliances when not in use. The company replaced 425 halogen bulbs with more efficient LEDs and installed occupancy sensors to turn lights off in empty rooms. Result: A $44,000 energy savings due to a 28 percent energy cut.

The stores weren't the only place the retailers were greening up. JCPenney also won an award from EPA's SmartWay Transport Partnership for its effort to cut energy waste in shipping. Better planning cut motor idling time, and also slashed miles driven by empty trucks in half, cutting carbon emissions by 4.1 million pounds.

All awesome stuff. More retailers should do this.

But here's where a tinge of greenwashing seeps in. It turns out the EPA's appliance-rating program, Energy Star, also gives out awards -- to the companies that do the best job promoting Energy Star's logo in their stores, and selling Energy Star-rated products. Guess who got that award?

Yep. JCPenney bagged a "sustained excellence" award from Energy Star back in March, for such moves as printing the Energy Star logo on customer receipts and being a sponsor of Energy Star's "Change the World, Start with Energy Star" campaign. For its part, Sears got an Energy Star "partner of the year" award for selling more Energy Star-rated appliances, and boosting its customers' exposure to the Energy Star logo 40 percent in stores and its advertising, creating a staggering 50 billion impressions.

Not to disparage the actual energy-saving efforts of these two retailers, but it does seem like a conflict of interest having the same government program whose campaigns you sponsor give your company awards. Who's to know if other retailers didn't make better gains, but perhaps didn't flog Energy Star as much and didn't make the prize roster?

Maybe EPA could offload the judging to a neutral environmental nonprofit instead -- might make these awards more meaningful and encourage more spirited competition that could encourage more retailers to make their operations more energy efficient.

Photo via Flickr user crazytales562

  • Carol Tice

    Carol Tice is a longtime business reporter whose work has appeared in Entrepreneur, The Seattle Times, and Nation's Restaurant News, among others. Online sites she's written for include Allbusiness.com and Yahoo!Hotjobs. She blogs about the business of writing at Make a Living Writing.