According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), a business and research group that represents organic industries such as propane torch manufacturer Flame Engineering and BugBlocker, Inc. that produces an environmentally safe pest repellent, organic product sales are slowing due to the economy but continue to increase overall as consumers become more knowledgeable about the environmental as well as economic benefits of sustainable purchases.

Buy Now, Benefit Later
Barbara Haumann, OTA’s press secretary, says that like other consumer markets “there’s an economic downturn all around in the green industry,” but that increasingly, “people are making the connection” that buying environmentally sustainable purchases now, which are usually more expensive than their regular counterparts, will save money in the future.

According to a recent report by Shelton Group, an advertising agency that conducts industry surveys of environmentally sustainable and energy-efficient initiatives, consumers are likely to take a number of energy-efficient measures after learning about how these products would save money over the long run.  Upon discovering the benefits of higher-efficiency water heaters, for instance, 42 percent of consumers surveyed said that they’d be willing to install one in their homes.

A survey conducted by the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) revealed that 57 percent of homeowners would be willing to invest in energy-efficient home appliances to lower monthly utility bills. It also showed that respondents were most interested in tankless water heaters, insulation technology and propane products.

In response to this increased interest, Energy Star has worked with manufacturers to develop propane furnaces that use up to 15 percent less energy than standard models. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Star-labeled propane tankless water heaters with energy factors of 82 percent can save consumers up to 60 percent in energy bills.

“It’s more expensive now [to purchase energy-efficient products], but the idea is that you get a better bang for your buck in the long run,” says Henrik Selin, a Boston University international environmental politics professor.

Energy-Efficient Innovations
GreenHome, an online resource of environmentally sustainable products and initiatives, reports that a standard 60-watt incandescent light bulb’s lifetime cost amounts to around $9 per megalumen-hour (a light energy and brightness measurement) and it costs $1. A 7.5-watt LED light bulb costs $100, but its lifetime cost amounts to around $4 per megalumen-hour.

Thomas Little, associate director of the National Science Foundation Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center at Boston University, is teaming with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of New Mexico to investigate technologies that will accelerate the adoption of energy-efficient LED lighting, creating an environmentally viable substitute for incandescent light bulbs. Little’s team recently produced a prototype for wireless network signal-transmitting LED light bulbs, which could significantly minimize light energy consumption while serving as a wireless hub for computers, smart phones and other devices. According to, LED light bulbs cost 50 to 100 times more than incandescent ones but last almost 100 times longer.

Economic Obstacles
Despite the potential environmental benefits, Little says his team faces the challenge of making the innovation affordable.

“When energy costs were high, people had a reason to turn to alternatives like taking the bus or riding your bike,” Little says. Because energy prices have recently decreased, he explains, consumers have less incentive to invest in alternative energy resources compared to last summer when energy costs were very high. Little adds that funds have also diminished and one of his research sponsors is currently facing bankruptcy in the recent economic downturn.

“The economy is slowing access to money, but in spite of all that, there is interest and [companies] aren’t giving up,” he says.

Haumann remains hopeful that consumers will continue to show interest in green products and that consumer demand will spark producers to create more environmentally sustainable, energy-efficient products. At the end of 2008, the OTA reported an increase in consumer interest in organic cotton products, which typically range higher than regular cotton products in price but are manufactured with cotton that was cultivated using sustainable and non-pesticide farming techniques. “People have made the wider environment and health issue into a personal issue,” says Haumann. (Click here to find out more about safe organic products.)

Bottom line: Purchasing slightly more expensive energy-efficient products now pays off in the long-term.

Credit: Renovate with Tommy Mac