On the very first day they could justify it this summer, big stores in New York City already had their doors open, air conditioning blasting out onto the street. It served as an invitation to potential customers—step inside, it’s cold in here—but it’s not the most environmentally responsible practice. And in New York City, it’s illegal.
Open-door air conditioning is a worldwide plague. Last year The Economist called out Tokyo stores like Louis Vuitton and Hermès for blasting cool air out the door, even while Japan was hustling to keep energy use low after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. A former Marine and one-time journalist got riled up about the issue two summers ago after he found an entire mall's worth of shops keeping their doors open during a heat emergency. A couple of concerned citizens are trying to end the practice in Hong Kong, while campaigners in Toronto, sponsored by the local power authority, have been fighting it since 2005. And in Seoul, officials preparing for a heat wave are touring stores to ask them to keep the temperature at a reasonable level and the doors shut.
New York City, though, is unique in banning the practice. The city council cracked down in 2008, instituting fines of $200 for a first offense and $400 for a repeat violation within 18 months. The law targets bigger stores, those with more than 4,000 square feet to cool. But although New Yorkers are zealous about reporting offenders—they called in 79 complaints to 311 last July—the city hasn’t made much effort to enforce the law, issuing only 25 violations in the law's four-year existence, according to Gothamist.
More common are efforts like those in Seoul and Toronto, which ask stores to voluntarily close the door when the air conditioning is on. During the Toronto campaign, called Doors Closed, volunteers made their case directly to store and restaurant owners and delivered posters to hang in the windows; the idea was to support stores that were keeping their doors closed intead of shunning or punishing ones that weren’t. After a few years, the organizers brought the campaign to an end, writing, “Most stores get it. They have either closed the doors, or have installed air curtains as a technological solution.”
This is one case in which individual action—keeping the doors closed—could make a big difference. Heating and cooling buildings accounts for 30 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions. And leaving the door open while the air conditioner is blasting can increase the amount of energy needed to cool a building by 25 percent. Many of the stores that keep their doors open are chains, and when reporters and shoppers have asked about the practice, employees respond that it’s company policy. If these large companies instructed their retail outlets around the world to turn down the air and keep the doors closed, they could singlehandedly cut tons of energy the world wastes every year.