Greenwashing - Say it Ain’t So!

When you stay at a hotel, the hotel likely will ask you if you want to use a towel more than once to “save the environment.” Have you ever wondered: “Is it to save the environment or just to cut costs?”

Way back in 1986, environmentalist Jay Westerveld cited this hotel policy and coined activities like it “greenwashing.” Wikipedia defines greenwashing as “the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly, such as by presenting cost cuts as reductions in use of resources.”

Justifying expensive products

Greenwashing frequently is used to justify the use of expensive products under the assumption that we can buy our way to green. In many cases, there is little if any data to support the claims. And if they do have a positive environmental impact, there may be much less expensive alternatives that accomplish the same thing.

Of course being environmentally responsible is critical. Our industry has a tremendous obligation to be “green.” The more than 125 million existing homes in the United States represent 21 percent of the nation’s total carbon footprint. The positive impact we can make by improving the efficiency of these existing homes is huge.

Before we talk about how we do that, let’s talk about where we have been. For the last 20 years, we have been building bigger, more power hungry homes. Our credo has been. Bigger…and more expensive…is better. To make these homes more “environmentally friendly,” we have sold things like solar panels. We tout both energy savings and costs savings. All too often, we just believe the product claims, without getting proof. When we analyze the choices and products being offered throughout the green industry, it may very well be that the most expensive is not always the most effective in terms of helping the environment or controlling costs. So what is the answer?

Building systems

First, we have to approach a building (house) as a system. Sustainable houses can still have un-green products, just as un-green houses can be constructed with all-green products. Understanding that the process comes first and the products come later is the first step in understanding sustainability.

Second, what really matters is the results, not the products. Individual products, no matter how high-tech, cannot replace proper fundamental basic building blocks such as tight (air sealed) ductwork, good insulation and weather stripping. By making smart improvements to our existing housing stock and working with the basics (which often may be less expensive), we can make our houses work properly so that they become healthy, comfortable and efficient — and at a fraction of the cost.

Third, we need to be honest, and not engage in deliberate or inadvertent greenwashing. Here is how we do that:

  • Understand the big picture — comprehend the environmental impact of the products you specify across their entire life cycle and make sure your clients understand it. Don’t just believe the words; demand proof.
  • Be honest and don’t overemphasize the benefits or hide the shortcomings. We run the risk of alienating consumers if we make claims that don’t represent reality.
  • Walk the talk — keep improving your individual footprint and encourage your staff, as well as your clients, to join you on this journey.
  • Prove your point — draw on respected standards and certification programs for legitimacy of any environmental claim (LEEDR, CGP, Green Building Standards, etc.).

The solution lies in helping our clients make smart choices and in helping them think in terms of the entire system and process — not simply the latest and greatest products on the market.

Quote of the month

As always, my quote of the month (this time from a friend and mentor): People want to latch onto things — solar panels, tankless heaters, etc. — because they are easy to understand, sometimes a little sexy and they can hold them. They love these products. The problem is that green building is all about the process — harder to understand, rarely sexy and almost impossible to hold. This will be a long, slow transition, but hopefully someday people will understand the difference and ask for what they need (the right process), instead of what they think they want (fancy things). Carl Seville — GBA Advisor.

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