Green Labels

March 14, 2007

Does a building need to be LEED certified in order to be green? Can produce be good even if it isn't labeled organic? I've come across a couple articles recently that ask some questions about the labels people use to try to promote their products, and the value those terms offer.

There are costs (sometimes very high costs) for participating in these programs. These costs can be prohibitive for small-scale businesses, which, ironically, are often the ones most interested in pursuing a greener way in order to distinguish themselves from their larger competitors.

'Organic' has become a regulated term. In 2002, the USDA set guidelines for using the term. A farm earning more than $5,000 per year is required to complete extensive paperwork and pay certification fees if they want to advertise their produce as being 'Certified Organic.' And there are questions about the value of the term 'Organic" anymore.

"Organic can sometimes be practiced today on giant farms with monoculture and absentee management," says Brieger. "Somehow … we’ve lost the connection of sustainable and local with organic."

Reestablishing that connection is part of what’s driving farmers to drop the government’s organic seal, but there are two other reasons, according to Karen Klonsky, an agriculture economist at U.C. Davis: “Money and time.” Maintaining organic certification costs thousands of dollars and eats up hours managing paperwork and staying on top of the ever-changing list of which insecticides, composts, potting soils, and other products are, and aren’t, permitted.

But there are alternatives. Certified Naturally Grown is a program for small-scale, direct-market organic farmers. According to the organization, "CNG strives to strengthen the organic movement by preserving high organic standards and removing financial barriers that tend to exclude smaller farms that sell locally and directly to their customers." Hundreds of farmers across 47 states and 4 Canadian provinces belong to this growing movement.

Similar questions can be asked about the LEED program and greenbuilding. This article seems to hold the notion that for a building to be green and receive LEED certification reqires expensive equipment, noting of a builder that "most of what they do has nothing to do with special gadgets." But it's not expensive, flashy equipment that makes a building green. Much more important are doing small things well, and making some incremental choices about better materials and ways of putting a building together.

LEED is a tool (and not the only one) that can be used to evaluate choices in a building and to guide the process. But it doesn't guarantee a better building, and it isn't required in order for a building to be green.

I worked on a very green building, a local library with a vegetated roof. Had we pursued LEED certification for it, it likely would have received a LEED-Silver rating (possibly even higher). But, in the end, the library board decided to put the money into the building rather than pursuing LEED certification.

There are also concerns about the value of these terms being diluted by some who only want to greenwash their products. Green labels such as 'LEED' and 'Organic' do not automatically mean that the item they are describing is better than another, similar one without the label. The labels may indicate the intent to do better, but they don't guarantee it.

Grow Your Own Way (Plenty Magazine)
Building Greener and Cheaper Than LEED