Pros also should closely examine claims that products qualify for points in the USGBC's LEED system. "We sometimes hear, 'Our products are LEED-certified,'" says Nate Kredich, vice president of residential market development for the USGBC. "That's obviously false. LEED is concerned with the overall design and performance of the house." Some manufacturers might say their products "qualify" for LEED points, but, Kredich says, "how that product is used is more important than its inclusion."

Ask and Receive

Beyond certification, Case believes the other path to "green salvation" is for pros to become more demanding. "Short of actual certification would be encouraging suppliers to be more transparent with the information and environmental claims," he says.

Makower compares the demands for product information to the call for more nutrition facts for food: "You can now find out exactly how much fat, cholesterol, or sodium is in a burger or an order of fries." He also points to architect and designer Michelle Kaufmann, who has created "Sustainability Facts" for home designs that include information such as energy usage and carbon dioxide emissions.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also may be lending some assistance. The FTC's "Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims," commonly known as the "Green Guides," help marketers avoid making environmental claims that are unfair or deceptive. Because of the proliferation of green claims, the commission is reviewing the guides this year, more than a year earlier than it originally planned, and the new guides could be ready as soon as 2009.

While the obscuring brush of greenwashing can paint any product in a hazy green sheen, a steady regimen of education, research, and discerning questions can chip through the layers to reveal a clear path to sustainable building. -- BUILDING PRODUCTS

From Greenwashing to Green Leading

Greenwashing isn't just a manufacturing issue. Building professionals also must avoid making similar mistakes in their own sales discussions and literature. Among pros, "There is some clear greenwashing, but it's well-intentioned," says Scot Case of TerraChoice Environmental Marketing. "Builders are seeing growing demand for green buildings, but not taking the time to become fully educated."

For example, some inexperienced contractors are relying on manufacturers' sales information that is fraught with greenwashing and not fully investigating the claims, he says. "I'm finding that even in the greener parts of the country, because the demand is growing so rapidly, there are people with no experience jumping in and making things more difficult for the real green designers," he says. They can charge "ridiculously" low prices by short-changing the consumer with products that aren't truly green, he explains.

Even if pros are using truly green products, materials are only a small part of what makes a home environmentally friendly, argues BuildingGreen's Alex Wilson. If a builder uses all the right products but is constructing a development 20 miles from the nearest store, it exacerbates concerns about sprawl, he says. "To call that development green based on recycled content in the tile in the foyer, that doesn't ring true to me." And if it's a 7,000-square-foot home, "I don't care what the materials are, it's not going to be considered green by many people."

As with product certifications, reputable green building programs can help address greenwashing concerns, says Nate Kredich, vice president of residential market development for the USGBC. "As long as they adhere to the better programs available to them, that will be a safeguard," he says. But, he notes, "If they try to create their own green building system without the guidelines of hundreds of experts, then not only does the buyer need to be aware, but the builder needs to be aware of their liability."

"When manufacturers make claims about their products and builders make claims about their homes, they both need to remember two key points," adds NAHB's Carlos Martin. "Make sure there's an acceptable standard" by which they're judging their product or home, and "make sure there's a third party certifying for that standard."