I was visiting my neighbors’ home the other day, and the husband and wife got into a heated discussion about their gas-burning fireplace. Marilyn said that the gas fireplace was more environmentally friendly than their old wood-burning one, but Christopher argued that the gas unit emitted CO2 into the atmosphere. This fiery debate went on for several minutes, and the spouses would not budge on their opinions.

What intrigued me about this conversation was that it’s the same discussion going on all around the housing market as well as most other industries; that is, which products really are environmentally friendly?

Figuring out which products are green often depends on public values, according to Dr. David T. Allen, of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas. He provides this persuasive example: An automotive engineer is trying to determine whether to use steel or glass-reinforced plastic for a car bumper. The steel is recyclable and the glass-reinforced plastic is not. But steel is heavier, so the vehicle uses more fuel. So, which is the greener material?  It depends on how society values energy consumption compared to material consumption, Allen states on his university Web page.

You can have similar debates for any number of building products or materials. For example, a treated wood deck versus a wood-plastic composite deck; fiber-cement siding versus vinyl siding; a wood door versus a steel door; an acrylic tub versus a cast-iron tub; and so on.

One concept that’s being embraced by many green advocates is the Cradle-to-Cradle principle espoused by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart. In their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, the authors present a manifesto calling for a new industrial revolution, one that would make both traditional manufacturing and environmentalism obsolete. The authors want to eliminate the concept of waste altogether, while preserving commerce and allowing for human nature. In the book, they offer several compelling examples of corporations that are doing good for the environment and their communities--and making more money in the process.

While I welcome the Cradle-to-Cradle concept, I’m also a pragmatist, and I can’t imagine a majority of pros or manufacturers embracing it any time soon. I’ve been writing about houses for more than 20 years, and it’s only been in the past few that traditional home builders and remodelers began implementing green products and construction practices. Manufacturers, too, have joined the green bandwagon, but, unfortunately, greenwashing proliferates.

My colleague, Katy Tomasulo, in a commentary after attending this year’s NAHB National Green Building Conference, wrote: “It’s no wonder builders are confused [about green products]. Depending on whom you talk to, a product might be evil or it might be the solution to all your problems. … The best approach is simply to be smart and do your research. Typically there’s more than one solution, and sometimes it’s about picking the lesser of two evils or the greater of two goods.” I couldn’t have said it better.

There are definitely products on the market that are more environmentally friendly than others, and some that are meeting the challenge for Cradle-to-Cradle. But, for now, there isn’t a perfect solution to every category we build with. In the end, it’s all about tradeoffs and making the greenest choices we can with the knowledge we have.