If you’re confused about green building products and the claims their manufacturers are making, you’re not alone. I feel that way myself sometimes, and it’s my job at the Green Building Alliance to navigate the complex world of green product claims—and help others do the same.
While we still have a lot of work to do to establish reliable standards for the multiple attributes that define green products, the good news is that there are a lot of dedicated people working on this problem, and there are a good number of resources already available to help you find your own comfort level with third-party verification of green claims. This article will guide you through the complexities of green product selection, help you understand how products are labeled and certified, and lead you to the most useful navigational resources.
Ultimately, whether you’re getting product information from your local supplier, direct from a manufacturer, from Web surfing, or via networking with colleagues, the most critical thing is that you trust your source and understand the criteria behind their recommendations.
It’s also important to note that green building is not just about following checklists and picking products; at its heart, sustainable building is the integration of important elements of design, site, energy, water, health, resource management, and other environmental and human considerations. However, the time does come when you have to select and specify materials, products, and components for a green home. At that point, your focus is certainly on products—and whether they will truly contribute to the green performance goals for your project.
The Greenwash Factor
When companies intentionally or unintentionally make false, misleading, or exaggerated claims about the environmental benefits of their products, it’s called “greenwashing.”
Click here for a guide to certifications and labels referenced by NAHB and LEED, as well as resources for making green-product selections.
At the most basic level, we all perpetuate greenwash if we try to lump all of a home’s sustainable features together by calling it a “green home” without substantiating our claims through some form of documentation and certification such as through a national or local green building program. Product salespeople, distributors, manufacturers, and marketers can fall into the same greenwashing trap if they exaggerate their products' performance claims or don’t mention environmental negatives that might diminish the products’ green attributes.
Consequently, there are a lot of individual performance, material, or environmental benefit claims made about building products that require scrutiny. The general rule about these seemingly simple descriptions is to be skeptical and curious enough to look behind the claim for some form of verification. Ask yourself the following:
- Is this claim obviously false? For example, “This product is LEED and NAHB certified.” (Neither USGBC’s LEED program or the NAHB certifies products.)
- Is the claim unrelated or irrelevant? For example, “This product stands out from the competition.”
- Is the claim too generic to make sense? For example, “This product uses the latest eco-friendly technology.”
- Does the claim only address one feature of the product when there are other important ones that are ignored? For example, “This product is maintenance free.”
- Can I verify the claim online or with information on the product itself?
Then start your research. If you can’t find the appropriate information to satisfy your questions in a quick Internet search or phone call, it might be time to start seriously doubting the claims being made.