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The Signs of Greenwash
OTHER PARTS OF THIS ARTICLEPt. 1: Green Building Products: Avoid the HypePt. 2: This PagePt. 3: Green Certification Labels Combat GreenwashPt. 4: Developing Internal Criteria for Green ProductsPt. 5: Planning Green: LEED Strategies for Existing BuildingsPt. 6: Pharos Project Readies New Environmental Assesment Tool
An environmental marketing agency called TerraChoice recently published a paper titled “The Six Sins of Greenwash.” According to the paper, which looked at environmental claims of more than a thousand retail products, “the sin of fibbing” represented only 1 percent of the incidence of greenwashing, whereas “the sin of hidden trade-off” encompassed 59 percent, by far the highest of the six sins.
The sin of the hidden trade-off involves masking one environmentally unfriendly attribute with an attribute easily recognizable as green. For instance, a floor manufacturer may say its product is made from sustainably harvested wood. But the ads don’t say that the trees are in China, requiring transportation — and all the carbon dioxide emissions that result — all the way around the world. Another example, says Cooper, is a flooring product that says it’s green but the manufacturer’s instructions call for it to be cleaned with harmful chemicals.
“You have to look at the entire life of a product to determine whether it’s green,” he says. “We always ask how it’s maintained.”
Sometimes the hidden trade-off isn’t such a black and white issue. Consider the debate over vinyl and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The Vinyl Institute, a trade association of manufacturers of vinyl and PVC products, touts the environmental benefits of vinyl, saying that PVC reduces carbon dioxide emissions because it takes less energy to manufacture than competing materials. The Vinyl Institute also says vinyl can help reduce energy use in buildings because many PVC roofs are ENERGY STAR rated. Additionally, vinyl lasts longer than competing materials and is highly recyclable — more than 1 billion pounds (mostly post-industrial) are recycled annually, according to the Institute.
Many environmentalists, however, oppose using vinyl or PVC in buildings because of negative environmental impacts. According to the Healthy Building Network, toxins like dioxin and ethylene dichloride are by-products of the manufacturing process. Dioxin, a potent carcinogen, is classified as a persistent bioaccumulative toxin, which means it does not break down rapidly and travels around the globe, accumulating in fatty tissue and concentrating as it goes up the food chain, according to HBN’s Web site. Additionally, PVC requires the use of potentially harmful additives during the manufacturing process, and releases dioxins if burned. HBN says that landfill fires are the largest source of dioxin in the air.
For several years, the U.S. Green Building Council studied PVC to determine whether to add a credit to the LEED rating systems for avoiding PVC — essentially labeling vinyl as an environmentally unfriendly product. The conclusion of their report, released early last year, was that precluding vinyl from buildings was unnecessary because vinyl was no worse as a building product than some of its alternatives.
So here is a case where facility executives should decide on their own by examining the literature what is greenwash and what is not.
Whichever side of the vinyl debate you fall, the discussion illustrates the importance of digging to the roots of green claims to find out what they really mean.
Oftentimes, green claims are purposefully non-specific. One example: “contains recycled content.”
Lots of manufacturers say their products contain recycled content, but what they might not say is exactly how much and whether that recycled content is post-consumer or post-industrial. Products that include either type are better than ones made from 100 percent virgin raw material, but, on balance, products with post-consumer recycled content are generally considered to be more environmentally responsible because those products are closing the life-cycle loop. Post-industrial recycled content may mean that a manufacturer simply dumps its own waste bins back into the raw materials pool. That’s much better than dumping waste into a landfill, but it’s not nearly as challenging as developing products with post-consumer recycled content. That’s why products with higher percentages of post-consumer recycled content are, with a few exceptions, more environmentally responsible and more sustainable. They are truly cradle-to-cradle products.
Manufacturers are beginning to recognize the importance of and demand for end-of-life recycling programs, and many — most notably, carpet and roofing manufacturers — have instituted programs, sometimes through third-party vendors, to collect their products at the end of their useful lives and re-incorporate them into raw material supplies.