Seven Ways To Avoid Greenwashing Your Building Products

Over at Green Building Elements, Joel Bittle comes up with the seven sins of greenwashing in the building business. Most are relevant to designers working with LEED, but many are useful to anyone looking at materials for home or office.

Below are the seven ways to avoid greenwashing your building product:

1. Make sure your product satisfies at least one green building requirement. If your product isn’t green, you’re not going to fool anyone. Do one of two things: 1) Research how to convert your product into one that satisfies green building program requirements, or 2) go back and continue to sell to traditional, non-green builders who still build over 90% of buildings out there. But hurry, that percentage drops every year and soon they’ll be obsolete.

2.  Do not claim credits that do not apply to your product or to the current building project. I see companies break this rule every week. I can’t tell you how many green brochures I’ve read that claimed the product is sturdy enough to qualify for credits for reusing existing materials. That’s great for whoever is rehabbing the building twenty five years from now, but does nothing for the current project. The example I gave above of the company that wanted to list every conceivable credit, even if they were ludicrous, would apply here. If you can’t support with scientific proof that your product qualifies for a certain requirement, don’t include it in your literature.

3. If you are not unique, don’t try to sell yourself as unique. All stainless steel contains recycled material, so don’t try to sell yourself as the only purveyor of recycled stainless steel. In fact, most steel used in building contains recycled material. A few months ago I had Jeff McIntire-Strasburg, the Sustainablogger, over at our kitchen and bath shop when a new countertop product came in that claimed to be green. As the two of us looked over the specs and the brochures illustrated with trees and ponds, neither of us could determine the product’s green-ness. Of course, they claimed they were sturdy enough to be a reused product.  But there was nothing recycled, reclaimed, or renewable about it. It claimed to emit no formaldehyde, which is great, except that no countertop we sell with the exception of laminate emits formaldehyde. And knowing a thing or two about the ore that made up this countertop, I was fairly sure it did more to hurt the environment than help it.

4. Don’t claim that yours is a local product if it’s not harvested/extracted or processed locally. If you are selling in the New York market, having a shipping facility nearby does not make your product local. If your manufacturing facility is nearby but the extraction for the base materials is across the world, simply state that your product may contribute to regional credits within 500 miles of your manufacturing facility, located in such and such town. If both your manufacturing and your extraction are done within 500 miles of your market, shout that one from the rooftops and let every green builder know.

5. No product is a LEED certified product. Or LEED qualified. Or official LEED product. Products are not LEED certified, projects are. So even though you are 100% sure that your product satisfies a LEED requirement, it is still up to the project auditor to determine if it actually does. Use language like “Bob’s Widgets may contribute to LEED credit 2.7…” I’m not sure of the USGBC’s official stance on this, but you might want to replace “may contribute” in that sentence with “have contributed” after your product has actually been used in a LEED project.

6. Your manufacturing practices do not affect LEED credits. While it is perfectly appropriate in your literature to highlight that you use a zero-waste, VOC free, daylit manufacturing facility, only the final product matters when it comes to LEED credits. So don’t cite the credit on reducing waste on the job site and then explain your zero-waste manufacturing process. The energy efficiency of your plant plays no part in the energy efficiency of the new building. This is not to say that your manufacturing practices aren’t extremely important to the environment, and consumers will want to know about them, but the USGBC doesn’t have a way to recognize them in particular green building projects.  For more on this, read Green Cabinets:  When Wood is Good.

7. Don’t sell yourself short. After all these warnings, don’t be hesitant to proclaim your green-ness.  Green builders are interested in every kind of green product out there.  If your company offers many different styles, colors, models, or whatever of the same product, but only one of them contains recycled materials, you have every right to include recycled materials on your LEED sheet, just make sure to explain which one qualifies. An early brochure from Silestone failed to mention that a few of their many colors contained recycled material, so for a long time I didn’t even consider Silestone as a green option. One of their colors even boasts 70% recycled material – their literature should, and now does, boast that as well. 

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