WCI Communities would never ask a supplier to create a one-off specialty product for its “green” communities and homes, says Ric Rojas, the Florida-based company's vice president of supply-chain management. “As the cost keeper of the company, I don't want them to invent a new product line that will increase everyone's costs,” says Rojas. Instead, “We are making them educate themselves about what might already be green about their products,” says Rojas.

As big builders like WCI add environmental stewardship somewhere amid their blend of marketing leverage and operational smarts, suppliers too are finding good reason to look long and hard at their products to figure out how green they are. And how green they might become. “I think we are a certain size so that there is a big value to selling a lot of product to us,” says Rojas.

In 2001 WCI, which also builds in Maryland, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, started assessing its building products and processes seriously after it partnered with Audubon International. The company committed to build 10 communities in Florida, from conception to completion, following principles of sustainability—working to meet today's needs without compromising the ability to meet future needs.

GREEN ALL OVER: Casa Verde at The Venetian Golf and River Club opened on Earth Day 2004. It is currently Florida's “greenest” home.

GREEN ALL OVER: Casa Verde at The Venetian Golf and River Club opened on Earth Day 2004. It is currently Florida's “greenest” home.

In each development, WCI self-policed its performance on water and wildlife conservation, water quality assurance, vegetation preservation, energy efficiency, and environmental education and outreach. As a result, each home got certified by the Florida Green Building Coalition.

No fewer than 14 times since 2003, local and national accolades for its environmentalist initiatives have gone to WCI, for both home construction and land development. WCI, in turn has marketed these eco-plaudits among its high-end, educated home buyers with considerable success. And to boot, as part of the process of going green, WCI has begun asking its suppliers to take a look at their existing products for earth-friendliness.

Soon, WCI discovered how little suppliers knew about the environmental pros and cons of their own products, says Karen Childress, the company's environmental stewardship manager.

Recently she sat next to a national sales representative of a major paint manufacturer at a builder's conference and began talking about the company's low VOC paint product—designed to lessen the amount of potentially cancer-causing volatile organic compounds “off-gassed” into the air. “I was surprised at how unaware and uninformed he was about his own product,” says Childress. “He had pigeon-holed it as a hospital product.” When, in fact, it is being used more and more in homes to improve indoor air-quality—a green-building principle. What resulted is that Childress and other WCI employees found themselves doing some of the research on the environmental friendliness of some of the products they were already using. In some cases, they happened on products that already met the definition of a green product.

Concrete roof tiles are a good example, says Childress. Popular among Mediterranean-style homes common in Florida, concrete tiles last longer than asphalt shingles, and when they are worn out, they can be recycled into other things. Asphalt shingles need to be replaced twice as often in southern climates and end up in landfills. What's more, concrete roof tiles are more energy efficient because they provide a one-inch air barrier of insulation on the roof deck.

In other cases, suppliers found it worthwhile to create special products for WCI, despite Rojas' worries about cost increases. A case in point, one fertilizer company (Rojas won't reveal company suppliers)has developed a special slow-release fertilizer for WCI that helps green its public areas without running off into waterways, where the excess nitrogen can cause algae bloom.

Another company creates mulch for WCI that makes use of trees and underbrush removed during land clearing. The otherwise wasted wood is put through a process that standardizes its chip sizes and color, making it look like cypress mulch, a more desirable, but environmentally costly product because it's made from extremely slow-growing trees.