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It’s Not Easy Being Green

March 4, 2011

BUILDINGS: How is greenwashing a problem?
Case: Every single purchase has hidden human health, environmental, and social impacts throughout the entire supply chain. While most products have some green aspect, that doesn't necessarily make them green products. It's all about shades of green and how to distinguish between them.

We've found that a vast majority of "green" products – 95% or higher – have some type of potentially unsubstantiated or misleading claim. TerraChoice, an environmental marketing agency, has found greenwashing comes in seven forms: hidden trade-offs, no proof, lesser of two evils, vagueness, irrelevance, fibbing, and false labels.

Without proof that a standard has been met, claims such as environmentally safe, recyclable, organic, non-toxic, or ozone-friendly are difficult to define and easily misinterpreted. Only products that have third-party verification and testing can be trusted.

Not only does greenwashing undermine your efforts to be sustainable, but it also negatively impacts your pocketbook. No one wants to spend money on environmental benefits that turn out to be non-existent.

BUILDINGS: How is the building sector affected by greenwashing?
Case: A lot of materials used to operate and maintain buildings are being heavily promoted as having environmental benefits, in part because so many building owners are looking to green their facilities. Cleaning products, electronics, office and sanitary paper products, furniture, carpet, and paint are all areas where facility managers and owners need to be careful of environmental claims and ask for independent proof.

Greenwashing can also cause problems between building owners and tenants. Buildings promoted as green tend to attract tenants who are knowledgeable about environmental issues. Chances are, you'll have a tenant who is an eco-geek – who actually wants to understand the environmental benefits of the products and services that maintain the building.

A worst case scenario is for tenants to be more knowledgeable about your products than you are. You don't want them actively disparaging your environmental efforts because you unintentionally purchased greenwashed products. These tenants need to have products that support the environmental messages that you're advertising.

BUILDINGS: How can building management become label-savvy?
Case: There are three types of eco-labels. Type 1 is based on third-party certification of a publically available environmental leadership standard. It's a binary system – either the product meets the criteria or it doesn't. The drawback is that you can't cross-compare between products, even for ones under the same label.

Type 2 is created by the manufacturer of the product, typically as part of a marketing campaign rather than in a standard-setting process. Type 3 is similar to a nutrition label. It offers specific environmental information pulled from life cycle assessments, but it's up to you to determine how green the product is.

If you are trying to buy green, you have to be an informed consumer. Not all environmental labels are created equal and you need to determine which ones you can trust. Only a handful adhere to good, tough standards and independent verification, such as ENERGY STAR, EcoLogo, GREENGUARD, Forest Stewardship Council, and WaterSense.

BUILDINGS: How can building operators be part of the solution?
Case: Whether you're dealing with an architect, manufacturer, or sales representative, you have to be skeptical. If you are considering a product that makes an environmental claim or has an eco-label, you need to ask three tough questions:

  • What is the standard this label is based on and can I see it?
  • What is the standard-setting process?
  • Who verified the process and product?

There's also a huge opportunity for building owners and managers to be engaged in the standard-setting process. Good standards are set in a public, transparent process. Building owners could help ensure that these green standards are meeting their needs, but very few participate in the process.

These programs are easy to get involved in. You can use their websites (for example, ENERGY STAR) to see what new standards are being developed, which ones are being revised or updated, and what new standards might be around the corner. There's enormous value for building owners to have their voices heard.

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