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Green Building Products: Avoid the Hype
Imagine you’re shopping for a new flooring product for your stock of existing buildings. A somewhat vague corporate directive has recently mandated that you should now consider “green criteria” in all purchasing decisions. One product catches your interest because it claims “low VOC emissions.” Another is “made from recycled content.” A third simply professes to be “Earth friendly.” So, in one form or another, they all claim to be green products. How do you decide which is the most green?
This scenario illustrates a larger and more difficult question: If a product is purported to be green, what characteristics make it so? What do phrases like “environmentally friendly” really mean? Are they advertising rhetoric or credible declarations of an environmentally responsible product?
These are some of the questions that flummox even the most sophisticated facility executives as they weigh environmental characteristics of building products. There was a time when many of those claims would have been accepted at face value. But as the green building industry has matured, so has the notion of using green marketing to move products. Facility executives have learned to take these soft environmental claims with a grain of salt. Rightfully so. Most experts say that exaggerated or downright inaccurate environmental claims — greenwash — are as prevalent as ever.
“Greenwash has definitely gotten worse in the last five years,” says Tom Cooper, principal, environmental design and research for Kaiser Permanente. “Some companies have worked hard to be truly green, but some just changed their marketing.”
According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, applications for new brand names, logos and tag lines with the word “green” increased from 1,100 in 2006 to more than 2,400 in 2007 — evidence that the green clutter is only getting more chaotic.
The good news is that third-party green certifications and specific environmental standards are helping facility executives separate fact from fluff. And better news is that many more green products than even five years ago are conforming to facility executives’ first two priorities in product selection: high performance and competitive cost.
“We’re committed to green, but products must perform equally,” says Michael Rengers, vice president of operations and facilities for Sarah Lawrence College.
So it’s increasingly incumbent upon facility executives to determine first what criteria they consider most important, and then to cut through the claims and find out which products really are green in the way they are advertised to be. Many manufacturers are adept at truthfully telling their products’ environmental tale. But there are still more that tend to overstate claims or tell only part of the truth.
“We question all assumptions,” says Rengers. “Just because it comes in a green bottle doesn’t mean it’s environmentally responsible.”
Third-party green certifications are one part of the answer to how to verify assumptions. An environmental life-cycle assessment is another. But at the end of the day, facility executives should build their own system based on what is important to them for determining what is greenwash and what is not.