In 2006, the Green Electronics Council opened a new registry designed to recognize electronics manufacturers that met specific eco-conscious standards. Called the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT, the registry rates the full environmental effects of electronic products.

To understand the all-encompassing nature of EPEAT, let’s compare it the more familiar Energy Star rating. While Energy Star focuses only on energy efficiency, EPEAT evaluates products for 51 separate criteria. These include the materials used in production, the longevity and recyclability of the product, the amount of energy used in production and consumer use and even the materials used in packaging.

EPEAT’s success as a voluntary corporate registry has grown steadily since its inception. In 2007, President George W. Bush issued an Executive Order requiring all federal agencies to use the EPEAT standards for new compuer equipment. President Obama expanded this policy in a new Executive Order in 2009. The new order called for all federal agencies to purchase only electronics registered by EPEAT.

Recent numbers show U.S. government agencies make about 7 percent of the world’s annual electronics purchases — so EPEAT, courtesy of two Executive Orders, has been making a big difference in this country. In fact, with 43 countries participating in the registry, EPEAT is having an impact worldwide.

So what’s the problem?

In March of this year President Obama issued a new Executive Order, optimistically titled “Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade.” The order sets strong goals for reducing water and energy usage, cutting emissions of greenhouse gases and promoting the use of alternative energy sources whenever possible.

All this is great. But there’s a downside to Executive Order 13693 — a rather bleak one. In the midst of the President’s attempt to tighten up government environmental policy, it looks like EPEAT has been abandoned. Not only does this order fail to mention EPEAT as a viable evaluation tool for government electronics purchases, it effectively revokes the two previous Executive Orders that made EPEAT the government standard.

What will replace EPEAT?

According to the President’s new Executive Order, federal agencies now have two choices. The first option allows agencies to purchase electronics that meet or exceed EPA standards. The second option makes it possible for agencies to buy equipment that meets voluntary standards established by “stakeholders” — in other words, environmental standards created by the manufacturers themselves.

In a perfect world, this would be a reasonable alternative to EPEAT. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. When manufacturers are allowed to set their own bar for environmental safety, it’s too easy to set the bar low and cheap. That’s why so many of the most respected environmental standards have been established outside of the industries they affect: for example, LEED for construction and design or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative for lumber.

Since its inception, EPEAT-certified electronics have saved the world more than 500,000 metric tons of hazardous waste. And by making EPEAT certification the standard for federal agency purchases, the U.S. government has acted as role model for the world — a model now followed by 42 other countries across the globe. Why, then, has the President turned his back on this exemplary registry?

We don’t know. We can only hope the President will consider modifying Executive Order 13693 to exclude voluntary standards created by manufacturers and replace them with EPEAT — the standard that works.