Beyond simple skepticism, greenwashing could leave consumers with a product that won't achieve the environmental benefits they desire, says Alex Wilson, president of BuildingGreen and executive editor of Environmental Building News. "There's a concern that well-meaning homeowners will buy a bill of goods and end up with something that isn't achieving what it's supposed to be achieving," whether in energy performance, indoor air quality, or other factors.
Building pros are often left to deal with complaints when a product doesn't perform, adds Carlos Martin, the NAHB's assistant staff vice president for construction, codes, and standards. "Builders are very concerned about [greenwashing] because we're the first to be contacted if the homeowner doesn't feel they got the product they were looking for," he says.
That result could have direct environmental impact, adds Stephen Roberts, managing director of sustainability consulting firm Green Canary. "If people are greenwashing, if they're being disingenuous in what they're doing or what they're selling, it's putting us as a society behind the 8-ball when it comes to climate change," he says. "For me, if we believe we're doing the right thing but we're really not making any progress to halt climate change, then we're going to have a big problem."
The good news is that as a building professional, you have many resources to help you hack through the green jungle and reveal truly sustainable products and practices. "One way to prevent [greenwashing] is to do your homework," Roberts says.
Find organizations and resources you can trust, he says, and "don't get sucked in because it has a green color on it." His organization's Greenwashing Index (www.greenwashingindex.com), for example, was created to allow people to evaluate advertisements making environmental claims to help viewers become savvier about marketing statements. Local green home builders' organizations also can help, he says.
"I think the answer is to get to know your local expert on building science," adds architect Pfeiffer. A handful of people in every community know the appropriate building science for their region, he says, and can help evaluate the technologies and methodologies. Nationally, publications such as Wilson's Environmental Building News and Building Products' sister magazine EcoHome provide in-depth background on green products and practices.
Labels and certifications are an important way to assess green products, but only if pros take the time to evaluate and understand the programs. "The best solution is to look for third-party certification on products," Wilson says. "If one does his homework, one can figure out which certifications can help, and which are [just] marketing logos."
TerraChoice's Case offers three clear questions to ask to distinguish real labels:
First, what is the standard on which the certification is based? At Greenbuild, "When I asked, 'What does that mean?', [the exhibitors] had no clue," Case says. "Does it look at one issue or multiple issues?" Is it just the product, or does it incorporate the raw materials, manufacturing process, and disposal?
Second, how was the standard developed? "You'd be amazed how many companies are developing their own standard," Case says. "The good standards are developed in a very open, public, transparent manner."
Third, how do you prove your product meets the standard? "A number of standards allow the manufacturer to decide whether they meet them or not," Case explains. "There's no proof, no accountability, no verification, no certification."
Case uses GreenSeal and his organization's EcoLogo as examples. Both are environmental leadership standards that follow international standard-setting protocols and cover several building product categories. He says pros can rely on such standards to avoid greenwashing, but "If you rely on a standard, you need to understand exactly what that means." Energy Star, for instance, is great for finding the most energy-efficient products, he says, but "if you look at Energy Star and assume it means energy-efficient [plus] no hazardous materials and easy to recycle, then you're misleading yourself."