Housing has been 'greenwashed'

Some consumer products not as eco-friendly as they claim

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 3 | Posted Jan. 6, 2010

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Some consumer products not as eco-friendly as they claim

Mary Umberger
Inman News

Walk through any home-remodeling expo these days, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the entire industry has gone mad for green.

Everything from roofing shingles to basement wall-sealants seem to bear some kind of "eco" stamp lately, testament to manufacturers' determination to appeal to consumers' apparently heightened appreciation for sustainability, energy conservation and plain old earth-friendliness.

"If you actually took all the marketing claims at face value, then the environment should be in great shape," says Henning Bloech. "Everything is 'green.' "

Bloech spends a great deal of time contemplating such claims. He's the executive director of the GreenGuard Environmental Institute, an Atlanta-based organization that, among other things, independently tests chemical emissions of homebuilding products to certify that they meet indoor air-quality standards.

His group is one of a relative handful of so called "third-party certifiers" that set standards and verify manufacturers' claims of their products' environmental attributes. Bloech says that though many companies have earnestly endeavored to earn their eco merit badges, many others are just pretending -- making marketing claims that have become known as "greenwashing."

"It's extremely widespread," Bloech says. "It's everywhere."

And greenwashing manifests itself in myriad ways, experts say. TerraChoice, an Ottawa-based marketing company that describes itself as specializing in sustainable products, in 2009 tested 2,219 products in various categories that made about 5,000 "green" claims; it found that only 25 were not guilty of at least one of its "seven sins of greenwashing," which include making claims that are vague, lack proof, or are outright misrepresentations, among others.

"There is just a lack of standards on how to define what is green," agrees Christopher Nelson, director of corporate development for UL Environment, a recently launched arm of Underwriters Laboratories that will set environmental standards and vet environmental claims for manufacturers' products.

One of ULE's two programs validates environmental claims, he said.

"If a product says it's made with 'X,' 'Y' or 'Z,' we test whether that's true," he said. "We're not saying that's good or bad, just that you can trust that the statement is accurate."

The other program tests sustainability, "that you can trust that it has met certain environmental guidelines that have been established through a third-party process," he said.

Third-party certification is time-consuming and expensive, Bloech says. Typically, such processes are funded by licensing fees that manufacturers pay in exchange for the right to advertise that they've passed the tests. Some groups, however, solicit public donations.

In addition to manufacturers who tout their own green credentials, Bloech says "second-party certification" is another source of information for consumers; most often, these are tests conducted through trade groups, such as those representing cabinet or carpet manufacturers.

"There are a lot of second-party certifications, and that's not necessarily bad," he says. "Some have fairly stringent requirements, but they still remain industry programs, and that may be a little bit of a conflict of interest."

Bearing in mind that standards vary, depending on who's doing the certification and what their goals are, here are some online sources for consumers who want to check out homebuilding-related products and manufacturers:

  • Green Guard: Certifies products that have been tested for their chemical-emissions performance and their effect on indoor air quality.
  • Green Seal: The nonprofit says it evaluates products or services, many of them related to construction and remodeling, on a life-cycle assessment basis -- from material extraction though manufacturing and use and recycling and disposal.
  • UL Environment: verifies manufacturers' claims and separately certifies sustainability standards.
  • LEED: The United States Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design program provides third-party verification that buildings or communities are designed and built with the aim of improving energy performance, water efficiency, emissions reduction, indoor air quality, and stewardship of resources.
  • Scientific Certification Systems: certifies aspects of a product's environmental impact in such individual categories as recycled content and indoor air quality or overall life-cycle assessment.
  • Energy Star: A joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy that rates products on their energy-efficient products and practices.

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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COMMENTS

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1. Williams said... on Jan 7, 2010 at 09:28AM

“Certification should add confidence, but be careful. This is big business. Remember the Enron and Arthur Andersen scandal? Conflicts-of-interest can be a problem for third-party auditing/certification companies.

For example, did Mr. Bloech mention GreenGuard shares people and office space with Air Quality Sciences, the for-profit testing business that started Greenguard? Or that both organizations are controlled by one person, Dr. Marilyn Black?

Requiring manufacturers to use a for-profit partner business in order to obtain certification is a serious conflict-of-interest for GreenGuard that casts a shadow on the benefits they can provide.

See these posts:

http://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2009/10/23/clarification-regarding-greenguard-certification/

http://www.kidstodayonline.com/index.asp?layout=talkbackCommentsFull&talk_back_header_id=6627785&articleid=CA6696088#393440

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2. Henning Bloech, GEI said... on Jan 7, 2010 at 05:03PM

“Regarding the last commenter: Conflicts-of-interest pose a significant problem regarding environmental claims. Too many labels are based on manufacturer devised standards and are merely disguised as “3rd party.". Most 3rd party certifiers (including GREENGUARD) would stay away from certifying to standards created by special interest groups for obvious reasons.

GREENGUARD Certification is the most stringent and credible IAQ certification in US The GREENGUARD Environmental Institute (GEI) was founded by AQS (a third party IAQ consulting firm) in 2001 as a separate entity. In addition to AQS, two other organizations independent from GEI or AQS provide testing for GREENGUARD: TUV Rheinland LGA and Bureau Veritas. Additionally, GEI follows ISO Guide 65 principles that prescribe clear measures to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
If "Williams" has any additional concerns, I’ll be more than happy to talk with her/him in person: Contact info at greenguard.org”

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3. verdedude said... on Jan 8, 2010 at 09:14AM

“use mrgreenpoints to quickly see which products have the most stringent certifications and which don't. You can also sort regionally manufactured products by zip code that can help earn points for certified wood, recycled content, reclaimed material, rapidly renewable material and low VOCs.”

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