Process Comes First, Then Products
Green houses can be built with un-green products and un-green houses can be built with all-green products.
In our common vernacular, “green” has come to mean many things and, at the same time, nothing at all. It has become the de facto term for environmentally sound—appplied to everything from healthy living to energy consumption and global warming. Clever marketing has people choosing hair products and hybrid cars based on their green status.
By watering down the term to mean expensive products, we promote the idea that we can buy our way to greenness without delivering real solutions to the environmental issues we face. This is greenwashing, folks, and it has a very real potential to derail the positive effect of the green sector. We run the risk of alienating consumers as they become jaded by marketing claims that don’t represent reality.
When we really analyze the choices and products being offered by the green industry, it seems that we are starting at the wrong end of the spectrum. Almost everything that is fed to consumers turns out to be the most expensive and often the least effective measures. Installing solar electric panels on a house will cut the coal we burn and lower the electric bill, but it’s not the best place to spend your money first. We’ve been building bigger, more power-hungry homes for years; do we really think the answer lies in yet another big purchase?
What matters are results, not products
If we really want to reduce pollution, stop global warming, and minimize our dependence on fossil fuels, we need to be honest and clear about how we’re dealing with consumers’ wants and needs, and frame “green” by results.
Housing is a great place to start. There are more than 125 million existing homes in the United States. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, these buildings represent 21% of the nation’s total carbon footprint. Clearly, we can have an immediate environmental impact by improving the efficiency of these existing homes. Solar panels, hybrid cars, tankless water heaters, bamboo floors, and no-VOC paints are great products, but when you approach a building as a system, you realize that individual products, no matter how high tech, cannot replace proper fundamentals like tight ductwork, good insulation, and weather stripping. By making smart improvements and working with the basics (which are often less expensive) we can make houses work properly so that they become healthy, comfortable and efficient—at a fraction of the cost.
We need to focus on solutions to people’s problems, whether they are energy costs or allergies. Once we have identified the core of each problem, we can address the real world issues and make a real difference when it comes to reducing the carbon footprint.
Tips to avoid greenwashing
As we in the green-building world market our services and solutions, there are some clear guidelines we can follow to ensure we are not engaging in greenwashing.
Get the big picture. Understand all of the environmental impacts of your product across its entire life cycle and share that information with your customers.
Be honest. Don’t overemphasize benefits to hide shortcomings.
Walk the talk. Keep improving your environmental footprint, and encourage your customers to join you on that journey.
Prove your point. Draw on respected standards and certification programs for legitimacy of environmental claims.
We are not lacking the technology to get the job done. The solution lies in helping consumers make smart choices, and thinking in terms of entire systems—not simply the latest products.
—Matt Golden owns in San Francisco, California.