Cleanwashing

I’ve watched a lot of advertising in my life, and I’m guessing many people that might read this have as well. I’d like to think that after buying the back page comic book stuff that fell apart right away, and the designer-labeled stuff that quickly went out of fashion, and the user-friendly software that wasn’t, and the diet stuff that puts on weight, all that stuff, that I am somewhat resistant to advertising. But marketing people aren’t sitting on their hands.

In 2008 I read a piece in Harper’s predicting that the next bubble after the Great Recession might be in CleanTech or Green industries. As predicted many of those industries and products have steadily wormed their way into our daily life. Even though it costs too much to make, there is probably corn-based ethanol in your auto fuel. There is likely an organic section in your grocery store with something you always buy that is labeled natural, but isn’t particularly different from the stuff that isn’t so labeled. You may even drive an EV thinking electricity is cleaner and more sustainable than oil.

In the building industry, we now have standards like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C), Netzero, and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Our institutional and government clients require LEED certification, which invokes FSC and C2C. We now try to implement many LEED concepts as good practice, and some clients even ask us to fill out LEED forms without paying into the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) certification process. Some clients have no intention of spending a nickel for green building, but will eventually be required to satisfy the new International Green Construction Code (IgCC).

Or will they?

USGBC’s LEED has a competitor in Green Globes (GG), which is far less costly for both building professionals and for building owners seeking green credentials. Both certification programs have been deemed equally acceptable by the General Services Administration, but critics contend that GG was initiated by plastics and timber industries to undercut LEED and the FSC, and that their certifications aren’t very rigorous (PDF).

Last week – in what we call a lunch ‘n learn – a representative of Forbo Flooring gave us the latest version of their AIA approved presentation, Full Transparency in Product Declarations. Forbo makes linoleum flooring, which over the course of my career was largely out-competed by first the very toxic Vinyl Asbestos Tile, then by the much less toxic Vinyl Composite Tile. Linoleum is more environmentally-friendly than vinyl flooring, but though serviceable in many buildings, it is less resistant to normal abuse in others. Now that being environmentally-responsible is becoming important, linoleum companies want to see fair measurements of what is and isn’t green. Hence they cry foul that Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) of building products don’t even consider human or eco-toxicity.

A few days ago, I ran across TriplePundit’s article, How to Fight Greenwashing: The Value of Third-Party Certification in Green Building:

Greenwashing is rampant. Overzealous marketers know that sustainability is gaining importance in the minds of consumers and corporate buyers, and they sometimes make claims that are vague, misleading, unquantifiable, or even completely immaterial to the product or industry. Bogus or unsubstantiated statements like “all-natural,” “eco-friendly,” and even “sustainable” are all too easy to find on everyday products, from cleaners to shampoos to paints.

The green building industry is a hotbed for greenwashing, reflecting the fact that green building is defined by a dizzying array of attributes. These attributes range from the material ingredients and relative toxicity of products, to the environmental impact of material extraction, to the actual performance of the building itself in its energy, water and resource usage.

Probably the most insidious greenwashing concept is the idea that you always have to be buying something new or different to be green. Making do with less, or even learning to do without is often the greenest approach.

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