What Is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the practice of falsely advertising one's product, company or practice as “green,” or sustainable, for purposes of increased revenue or clientele. Guilty parties span a wide spectrum, from product manufacturers to businesses who have no direct investment in sustainable building but would like to attract green-conscious customers.
In the residential green building world, guilty greenwashers can include builders falsely claiming “green builder” status, manufacturers peddling sub-standard or untested “green” products to contractors, or real estate agents wrongly claiming green status for the homes they work to sell. Consumers and professionals alike can find themselves victims of greenwashing.
How Consumers Can Avoid the Greenwash
Whether building or buying, the consumer is susceptible to greenwashing tactics. When hiring a general contractor (GC) to build a green home, the consumer should look for a few key elements.
For starters, the GC should have green building education, whether as a member of one's state Built Green program, a LEED for Homes accredited professional, or a green builder certified by one of the education providers listed on the U.S. Green Building Council's website.
“Consumers should make sure the builder has shown some investment in green education, but they should also do their own research into the builder,” says Kathleen O'Brien, author of The Northwest Green Home Primer, a green home guide for builders, remodelers, and buyers. Asking for references and past projects is a good idea. It is also important that the consumer inquire into subcontractors, as well, and ensure that they have experience with green building techniques and practices.
The consumer should also ask about a performance test for the home, which will determine the effectiveness of many of its green building elements. “The only way you are truly going to know if the home was built right is to do a performance test,” insists O'Brien. The test may cost an additional couple of thousands of dollars, but it is worth it.
Homebuyers in the market for a green home will have their own challenges when trying to avoid greenwashing. Fortunately, MLS listings are now stating if a home is certified green or energy-efficient through programs like Energy Star, LEED-H, and Built Green.
Inquiring into past performance tests on the house is another smart move. A home with green features may have had help from a private performance-testing contractor who subjects the residence to a series of energy-efficiency and air quality tests to determine strengths, problem areas, and possible solutions. Records of past performance tests will better educate the homebuyer on the effectiveness of the home's green features and its green needs.
Lastly, when choosing a real estate agent, it is advisable to look for one who has green home education. Certifications like EcoBroker and agencies like Greenworks Realty are gaining credibility for qualifying agents and brokers to understand and accurately sell green homes and homes with green features. EcoBroker provides education to real estate professionals on green home-related issues, and designates them as EcoBroker certified upon successful completion of the program. Specialty agencies like Greenworks Realty work the green home markets, and stay current on green home features as well as green homes for sale in the area. Even when going through a green-savvy agent or broker, the homebuyer should know what to look for. “Consumers should ask for a checklist of what is in the house,” says O'Brien, including energy and water-efficient products or appliances, as well as any other green features.
How Builders Can Avoid the Greenwash
Builders can also be victim to greenwashing tactics, largely on two fronts. The first concerns the burgeoning green education industry, in which courses, certifications and colleges all purporting to qualify the enrollee as a “green builder” are springing up in states across the country. Professionals in the green building field,including contractors, architects, and designers, would do well to thoroughly investigate a certification course before investing money and time. In addition to evaluating the course curriculum, one should look at the affiliations of a self-described green certification course or college. You should ask for any endorsements they might have, says Andrea Lewis, program manager for the Sustainable Building Advisor Institute, a nonprofit green building certification program that offers a 9-month course educating building professionals on how to green-up their practices. Endorsements from known entities such as the USGBC carry a lot of weight, and potential enrollees should look to these first when exploring education options. The USGBC's Education Provider Program is a good source of green education for building professionals, as well.
Contractors should also be diligent when selecting “green” products to use in their projects. “Third-party testing is a must,” says O'Brien. Often, the marketing representative for the company selling a product as green isn't the best source of accurate information. Instead, the builder should consider speaking to the technical department and ask to see the material safety data sheet to explore the green qualities of the product in question. Where indoor air quality is a big component of green building, the potential toxicity of a product must be taken seriously.
Looking for a credible ecolabel is another option. Energy Star, WaterSense, and GreenGuard are just a few of the ecolabels one can look for in a product; these three labels designate a product as energy-efficient, water-efficient, or beneficial to indoor air quality, three critical ingredients in any green building system. A longer list of ecolabels can be found at ecolabelindex.com, and buildinggreen.com features a growing list of tested and reviewed green products specific to the building industry.
A little education can go a long way in avoiding the greenwashing that is infiltrating the building industries. Professionals and consumers owe it to themselves, the industry, and the planet to take proper steps to keep from being a greenwashing villain or victim.