It Isn’t Always About the Label

Has green gone wild? It certainly has on the demand side of the equation. Check out these recent stats, from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and McGraw-Hill:

  • Consumers expect to double their spending on green products and services in 2008.
  • 90 percent of Americans agree that there are important green issues and problems.
  • Green building will be a $40- to $50-billion market by 2010, up from $7.4 billion spent on green building components in 2006.

So we know people want to buy green, but how do we define green? For starters, there’s the whole-house rating approach. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Homes (LEED-H), and Energy Star all have good programs for determining green qualities of a home.

After the whole-house approach, the next set of items that can be rated are building products. There is a profusion of labels, and the national certification organizations — such as Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), Green Seal, Green Guard, the Master Painters Institute, and the Carpet and Rug Institute — all rate products for their green qualities, with emphasis on volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and indoor air quality.

For lumber, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) are the two main rating agencies, both of which look at chain of custody, though a debate rages about these standards, because SFI is funded by lumber industry interests.

Labels and rating agencies will proliferate over time, and government regulation is pretty far off. There has been some chatter that the Federal Trade Commission might examine “truth in labeling” issues of green claims, but they were talking about that in the 1990s, too. Hence, it’s imperative that contractors know some basics of green building so they can evaluate a product for its green characteristics whether or not it has a green label.

Here’s a crazy analogy, but stick with me. Ritz-Carlton has a motto that establishes behavioral principles for its workers. They are “ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen.” A worker just needs to ask, “Is this something that a lady or gentleman would do to serve a lady or gentleman.”

Now, apply that to green. By learning some principles that repeatedly emerge in multiple green standards — a contractor just needs to ask, “In light of these principles, is this something that would be considered green?”

Here are those consensus principles: Products are green if they reduce energy usage, reduce water usage, reduce garbage and stress on landfills, offer long lifecycles and low maintenance, have low emissions, and are made from recycled products or are recyclable.

For products like low-VOC paints — labeled for green or not — the green qualities are obvious. But take something like three-tab roofing. Among three-tab products, is there one that reduces energy use and is made from recycled or recyclable products? With a little research, you’ll find there are some. They are roof shingles that reflect up to 25 percent of the sun’s heat, thereby reducing cooling loads. Also, many three-tab shingles can be recycled. So, whether the three-tab has the Energy Star or Cool Roofs rating or not, you can ask the question “Is it green?” and look at the product in light of consensus green principles.

The same approach can be applied to everything from batt insulation and caulks and sealants, to windows, spray foams, and carpets. But making this kind of appraisal takes some education. Take maybe three or four hours to get started; the web is a great resource. Start at great sites like, or the and sites, which are just loaded with information. It will be easy to branch out from there. But you better get started, because we know that your customer is buying green, and getting increasingly savvy about green productss and practices they want in their projects.