How Do you Know if a Building Product Is Truly “Green?”

February 3rd, 2011 by Cathy Rust Leave a reply »

Yesterday I wrote about experiencing “green washing” first hand. So how do you know when you’re being bamboozled by a company or if the product is legitimately green? I wish I could say there’s a sure-fire way to tell, but the problem is, there’s no one right answer. In fact a big part of the problem is that experts in the field will disagree with each other on what makes a product “eco-friendly.” That, unfortunately, makes your job as a consumer, that much harder. However, there are a few guidelines to help you make informed decisions and I’ve outlined a few of them to help you out:

Third Party Certification: Definitely buying a product with an independent third party certification will help you know you’ve bought a ‘green’ product. Look for products that have been certified by reputable third party groups such as the Forest Stewardship Council and GreenGuard. Lloyd Alter, over at Treehugger, is writing an excellent 4 part series on greenwashing that’s worth reading.

But what’s also important is your own criteria of green. For some people a ‘green’ product is all about the absence of chemicals so that there is no off-gassing into indoor air or no tracking of chemicals from a carpet to other areas of the house. For other people a ‘green’ product is something that has the smallest carbon footprint possible relative to a traditionally produced similar item. For example, a second hand sofa refurbished by hand, with jute and recyclable metal springs, using organic cotton, goose down and other renewable, natural products, rebuilt in your hometown, will, in theory, have a much lower carbon footprint than a new couch manufactured overseas using synthetic (petroleum-based) fabrics and fillings, wood from an unmanaged forest and labour that isn’t respected. The irony is your second hand refurbished couch will probably cost twice as the new one.  Even with the second-hand couch, you could get really caught up in the fine details, so sometimes just knowing that you’re extending the life of a sofa and employing your neighbourhood upholsterer might be enough. When there are carbon counters available for every single product we buy, making these decisions will become a little easier. Finally, “green” products may be those that might help your home conserve energy, regardless of how they’re made.

Does the business practice what it preaches: Another way to tell if a product is green, or even trying to achieve a certain level of greeness is through the company’s business practices. Does the company practice what it preaches or is the product ‘green’ merely to take advantage of the latest buzz?  On the positive side of my tour of the Interior Design Show, there were many businesses who practice environmental awareness within their own facilities. I visited two exhibits of companies that are striving towards carbon neutrality but neither of them mention it in their exhibits — they just show their products as high-quality competitive products. Lowering their carbon footprint is just part of their business practice.

An established company that’s just introduced a new “green” product on the market without greening its own business practices first probably doesn’t really have a grasp on what it means to be green and is just doing it for the quick buck. If, on the other hand, they have genuinely started to work towards lowering their over all carbon footprint, then the product might be legitimate.

Energy Consumption in the making of a purportedly “green” product: The tar sands in Alberta apparently produce only 6 barrels of oil for every barrel of oil used to extract it, and that’s not including the environmental damage inflicted on the area. Producing ethanol from corn is even worse, with a ratio of 0.8-1.5 per one barrel of oil used to produce it. (See Alex Wilson’s post on Energy Return on Investment.) The same is true for some environmental products. For instance, a report came out in late 2010 that indicated that some insulations actually use more energy in their manufacture than they save in the house it’s being used in. Any product that uses more natural resources than it conserves is not a green product.

Watch out for the words “natural” and “renewable”: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “natural” doesn’t always mean better. Neither does “renewable.” Petroleum is a “natural” product. So is granite, but neither are renewable resources and petroleum is causing a lot of huge environmental problems these days besides climate change. On the other hand. mahogany is renewable — but only if it’s managed properly. Same with bamboo. Don’t think that buying bamboo flooring is going to help you save the earth. There are millions of acres of tropical forest being razed and replanted with bamboo to satisfy our “eco-craze.” Make sure bamboo comes from a certified, well-managed forest, and if you’re intent on buying a stone counter top, go for quartz.

Ask questions: Don’t accept the marketing speak on the labels of products. “Upcycled”, “Recycled,” “Reuse” “Zero-VOC”, “Natural” are all environmental buzz words. Dig deeper into the words and find out what’s behind them — and if the vendor can’t answer your questions, don’t buy the product. They should know as much about what they sell as possible. Find out where products are made. Sometimes vendors will even be aware of labour practices if products are manufactured in developing countries (fair trade, social change, etc.).

These are just a few of the things to think about when looking at how to assess whether a “green” building product is actually green.

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