Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Green Products Don’t Make It Green

By Matt Golden
A green house can be built with un-green products and an un-green house can be built with all green products. Its about process first, then products.

In our common vernacular, “green” has come to mean many things, and at the same time nothing at all. It has become the de-facto term for environmentally sound – dealing with everything from healthy living to energy consumption and global warming. Clever marketing has people choosing hair products and hybrid cars based on their green status.

Greenwashing 101
By watering down the term to mean expensive products, we promote the idea that we can buy our way to greenness without delivering real solutions to the environmental issues we face. This is greenwashing folks, and it has a very real potential to derail the positive effect of the green sector. We run the risk of alienating consumers as they become jaded by marketing claims that don’t represent reality.

When we really analyze the choices and products being offered by the green industry, it seems that we are starting at the wrong end of the spectrum. Almost everything that is fed to consumers turns out to be the most expensive and often the least effective measures.
Installing solar electric panels on a house will cut the coal we burn and lower the electric bill, but it’s not the best place to spend your money first. We’ve been building bigger, more power hungry homes for years; do we really think the answer lies in yet another big purchase?

What matters are results, not products
If we really want to reduce pollution, stop global warming, and minimize our dependence on fossil fuels, we need to be honest and clear about how we’re dealing with consumers’ wants and needs, and frame “green” by results.

Housing is a great place to start. There are more than 125 million existing homes in the United States. According to the US Energy Information Administration, these buildings represent 21% of the total US carbon footprint. Clearly, we can have an immediate environmental impact by improving the efficiency of these existing homes. Solar panels, hybrid cars, tankless water heaters, bamboo floors, and no-voc paints are great products, but when you approach a building as a system, you realize that individual products, no matter how high tech, can not replace proper fundamentals like tight duct work, good insulation, and weather stripping. By making smart improvements and working with the basics (which are often less expensive) we can make houses work properly so that they become healthy, comfortable and efficient – at a fraction of the cost.

We need to focus on solutions to people’s problems, whether it is energy costs or allergies. Once we have identified the core of each problem, we can address the real world issues and make a real difference when it comes to reducing the carbon footprint.

Tips to avoid greenwashing
As we in the green building world market our services and solutions, there are some clear guidelines we can follow to ensure we are not engaging in greenwashing.
Get the big picture - Understand all of the environmental impacts of your product across its entire lifecycle and share that information with your customers.
Be honest - Don’t overemphasize benefits to hide shortcomings.
Walk the talk - Keep improving your environmental footprint, and encourage your customers to join you on that journey.
Prove your point - Draw on respected standards and certification programs for legitimacy of environmental claims.

We are not lacking the technology to get the job done. The solution lies in helping consumers make smart choices, and thinking in terms of entire systems not simply the latest products.

Related article: The Six Sins of Greenwashing

--Matt Golden owns Sustainable Spaces in San Francisco, Calif

1 comment:

Michael Chandler - said...

Well said Matt

We've learned a lot about un-intended consequences along this path.

I'm thinking we need a place for folks to post their top five green-washing pet peeves.

I'm voting for ethanol promotion leading to corn shortages, starvation and deforestation. Or recycled fabrics going to insulation instead of being shipped to third world countries for re-use as clothing. Steel framing promoted as a green product when it's better use is for things that can't be made of renewable wood. What about "green" products that come with embodied child labor content?

Our local green product showcase here in NC has a display right inside the door of steel studs and cotton insulation. I want to ask them if this is their green washing display. I drive by commercial cotton fields here in NC, it's not a pretty sight.

People may be getting green burn-out but they are also becoming more sophisticated. They are beginning to understand indoor air quality and resource efficiency. Maybe someday soon they'll come to grips with life cycle analysis and embodied energy content and we can leave the G word in the history books.