Ignore Greenwash

Ritz-Carlton counts among its properties many hotels that most of us couldn’t afford without the help of PowerBall. So you’d think they would spare no expense when training their workers, right? After all, when you drop several hundred on a luxury room, it better have more than just nice, fluffy towels.

So, 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, they can refer to that principle and ask, “Is what I’m about to do something a lady or gentleman would do?” If the answer is yes, then the action is appropriate.

But what’s fluffy towels, staff training and $500-a-night hotel rooms have to do with greenwashing? A great deal of the confusion around green building is created by product claims that are not based in common-sense principles about green building. Aren’t there common-sense green principles that we can refer to, like the Ritz-Carlton philosophy, that will give us a reality check in the face of the esoteric, academic distinctions and wild claims made every day about green products?

Yes, there are. I’ve found five that emerge again and again across many of the green building standards. No matter what label a product carries, 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 manufacture, delivery, installation and use.

So let’s put this Ritz-Carlton approach to the test on the following products:

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 energy efficient. So, spec trusses as green products with confidence.

Insulation. 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 specifying non-plantation-grown tropicals, you likely are choosing 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 tenets 2 and 4 above.

You see, you can get around greenwashing if you develop critical judgment and knowledge of basic green principles. When you do this, you’ll find that green building really is a rather old-fashioned approach to building. It produces tight, well-vented, low-maintenance structures that don’t use lots of fuel to heat and cool themselves, and contain nontoxic products and materials that don’t permanently deplete their sources when harvested.

Greenwashing is nothing more than marketing acrobatics that go on high above where the real work takes place: in your design shops and on the jobsite. And it’s likely the 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 third-party rating agencies have brought to the industry are verification and documentation systems that serve as evidence architects and builders can pass along in the sales process. With this evidence, a premium return on investment can be made on green homes, so no one gets caught in the square-foot pricing trap that stacks premium green homes against nongreen homes that are comparable only in their square footage and not their quality.