How Not to Greenwash Your Building Product

July 17, 2008

Whether you are developing a new green building product or have recently discovered that the product you have been selling for years satisfies green building program requirements, there comes a point where you must state on your literature which green building (probably LEED) credits your product satisfies or contributes to. It is at this point that usually honest businesses declare their products greener than they really are, crossing the line from green to greenwashing in order to reach the widest green market. Maybe you didn’t understand the requirements for the individual credits. Maybe someone told you to declare as many credits as you possibly could and let the LEED auditors sort them out. Maybe you’re just throwing everything that could conceivably be green against the wall to see what sticks. What you have done is greenwashed your product, which may have been green enough to begin with. But once you greenwashed it, you’ve sent a message that your company a) may not be experienced with green building or b) may not be trustworthy.

Last month I spoke to a representative from a company that claimed to have recycled material in its product, but I couldn’t figure out where this recycled material was supposed to be. The representative couldn’t explain it, and simply said, “It’s up to the LEED auditor working each particular job to determine which credits are satisfied. We just wanted to give ourselves an opportunity to satisfy every point we could.” I tried to tell him I didn’t think that was a good idea at all. It’s unfortunate, because the product in question was not only made from a renewable resource and formaldehyde free, but was one of the few green options in its category, so the greenwashing was completely unnecessary.

When writing out what green building credits your product may satisfy, keep the following in mind:

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.  (See the comments below, however, for examples of how Silestone greenwashes on their website LEED sheet.)

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