How to Fight Greenwashing: Ignore It

The Ritz-Carlton chain counts among its properties many hotels that most of us couldn’t afford without the help of the PowerBall Lottery. So you’d think they would spare no expense when training their workers, right? After all, when you spend $500 on a luxury room, it better have more than just nice fluffy towels. It better have some very helpful staff. And how does Ritz-Carlton train its staff?

They start by giving them a principle by which all actions should be judged. It goes like this: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” When faced with a service decision, the staff can refer to that principle and ask, “Is what I am about to do something that a lady or gentleman would do in service of another lady or gentleman?” If the answer is “yes,” then the action is appropriate.

What do fluffy towels and $500-a-night hotel rooms have to do with greenwashing?

Well, there’s a fair amount of confusion about green building. But the vast majority of it is created by product claims that are not based in commonsense principles about green building. And these claims, along with a proliferation of third-party labels — many of them admirable efforts — make green building far more complicated than it needs to be.

Aren’t there commonsense green principles that we can refer to, like the Ritz-Carlton motto, that will give us a reality check in the face of the esoteric science, academic distinctions, and wild marketing claims about green products?

Yes, there are. In my writing and in my live seminars, I always point to five basic tenets of green building. No matter what label a product claims, a product is green if it is in accordance with these principles. They don’t always apply, but mostly they do. A product is green if it:

1. Improves indoor air quality.
2. Uses recycled/recyclable materials
3. Reduces water consumption
4. Is sustainably harvested
5. Reduces fuel consumption (carbon footprint) during the manufacture, delivery, installation and use.

So, whether a product is labeled or not, let’s put this “Ritz-Carlton” approach to the test.

Trusses. Are they green? Yes, on two or three counts. They are made with secondary-demand lumber; the material is recyclable; and certain trusses (raised-heel trusses) contribute to making the structure very energy-efficient. So, spec trusses as green products with confidence. Whether they are labeled green or greenwashed, you just developed the critical judgment needed to determine the green qualities of a product — with or without a green label.

Insulation. Green? With or without a green label, the answer is yes because it reduces carbon footprint. It’s especially green if it doesn’t have formaldehyde, or has formaldehyde that’s third-party certified not to emit at harmful levels, thereby improving indoor air quality.

Lumber: Unless you are using non-plantation-grown tropicals, you are likely buying FSC, SFI, CSA, or American Tree Farm wood; all of these are solid programs. Lumber is inherently green (renewable, recyclable), and it corresponds with green tenet No. 2 and No. 4 from above.

You see, you don’t even have to mess with greenwashing if you develop the critical judgment and knowledge of basic green principles. When you do that, you’ll find that green building is really a rather old-fashioned approach to building, something you’ve very likely been doing all along. Green building produces tight, well-vented, low-maintenance structures that don’t use lots of fuel to heat and cool themselves, and uses non-toxic products and materials that don’t permanently deplete their sources when harvested.

It really is that simple.

Greenwashing? That’s nothing more than the marketing acrobatics that goes on high above where the real work takes place: your building sites. And it’s very likely that these green tenets listed above were already guiding your building practices and product purchases long before the USGBC or NAHB started going green.

The good things that the third-party rating agencies have brought to the industry are verification and documentation systems that serve as evidence that you can use to pass along in the sales process. With that evidence, you can achieve a premium return on the investment you’ve made in greening up your remodels.