Green Building  

Avoiding the Sin of Greenwashing

How to Avoid Misrepresenting Your Build
 Repent, o ye sinners

View this article in our July issue of Construction Digital

In Mathew, Chapter 23, Jesus of Nazareth tells his followers, "Woe to you, leaders of business and Corporations, you hypocrites! You are like greenwashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of pollutants and everything unclean.”

Okay, maybe Jesus didn’t say exactly that, but he might as well have.

Greenwashing – the misrepresentation of products as environmentally-friendly in order to falsely lure customers – has been a growing problem as the sustainability movement has picked up steam over the last few decades. Corporations eager to ride the ‘green’ bandwagon have misleadingly labeled many of their products as eco-conscious despite little or no substantial changes in waste, pollutants, inefficiencies or the like.

The building industry is no exception. With LEED Certification becoming more fashionable, contractors have desperately tried to rebrand their services as ‘green building’ oriented, but many times with negligible improvements to their overall environmental impact. Claiming stainless steel as containing ‘recycled materials,’ for example, is redundant – all stainless steel contains recycled elements. ‘Locally-sourced’ materials that were shipped from nearby, but mined or produced halfway around the world, don’t exactly give you carbon street-cred. And boasting building products as ‘LEED certified,’ when qualification depends on post-build evaluation, is not a particularly ethically-sound way of wooing clients.

Customers, though, are waking up to paper-thin marketing techniques, and the burden of proof is weighing heavier upon companies to provide ample evidence of sustainable practices. One way contractors can ensure that projects are genuinely green is to rely upon a growing number of standards and independent bodies that can validate eco-conscious claims. Standards given the USGBC, Green Star, and others – if used responsibly – can help environmentally-minded clients find builders with green sensibilities, and provide valuable marketing material for the contractors themselves.

Independently verification can also help contractors keep tabs on subs and vendors. HVAC systems, for example, often do not run at full efficiency because of slight defects in construction – having an independent engineer verify optimal function can make sure a project delivers the sustainability promised to clients, and soon this may become standard procedure in the industry.

While any attention on sustainable building practices is beneficial and may contribute to changing the market mindset in the long run, genuinely ‘green’ products and services require more than mere rebranding. For the morally-minded builders in the industry – as well as those looking to avoid a potential lawsuit – the environmental consulting firm TerraChoice has come up with the Seven Sins of Greenwashing that may help guide a genuinely green build.

1.      The Sin of the Hidden Trade-off

A claim suggesting that a product is ‘green’ based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. Paper, for example, is not necessarily environmentally-preferable just because it comes from a sustainably-harvested forest. Other important environmental issues in the paper-making process, such as greenhouse gas emissions, or chlorine use in bleaching may be equally important.

2.      The Sin of No Proof
An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. Common examples are facial tissues or toilet tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing evidence.

3.      The Sin of Vagueness
A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. ‘All-natural’ is an example. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, and poisonous. ‘All natural’ isn’t necessarily ‘green’.

4.      The Sin of Worshipping False Labels
A product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists; fake labels, in other words.

5.      The Sin of Irrelevance
An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. ‘CFC-free’ is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law.

6.      The Sin of Lesser of Two Evils
A claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. Organic cigarettes could be an example of this Sin, as might the fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicle.

7.      Sin of Fibbing
Environmental claims that are simply false. The most common examples were products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified or registered.

Purifying your firm through these seven ablutions will help your business build a stronger reputation and stay out of litigation, while keeping the gods of green appeased. 

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