Posts Tagged ‘Green Washing’

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

February 3rd, 2011

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.

Greenwashing in Real Life

February 2nd, 2011

I always love going to the Interior Design Show. It’s a great mix of unique interior design exhibits, new products, up and coming Canadian designers at Style North and great designer displays. This year was no exception — it was truly a great event with loads of energy buzzing from the crowds. While I walked around the event speaking with exhibitors I was, of course looking specifically for “green” products and features. Speaking with the exhibitors it was pretty easy to become enthralled with the beautiful displays and pitches thrown my way regarding products. But once away from the frenetic pace of the show, there was time to reflect, and reflection allowed me to think back on what I saw and ask critical questions and in a few cases, I wasn’t comfortable with the answers.

A perfect example of pure “greenwashing” is a discussion I had at one of the many paint booths at the show. The paint I was looking at was labelled “zero VOC.” That is, it emits no volatile organic compounds that pollute a home’s indoor air quality. Volatile organic compounds can cause headaches at the very least, but also in some cases respiratory problems, asthma, and in severe instances is linked to some cancers. So there have been a lot of efforts by companies with products that commonly off-gas to reduce the responsible chemicals — or at least convince us that they have done it, when maybe they haven’t done quite as good a job as they’d like you to believe.

Not surprisingly, paint is one of the most significant off-gassing products. I was told all the benefits of this one product: it was washable, long-lasting, came in a variety of finishes from flat to semi-gloss and was available in all the colours the company offered. And here was the rub: if you left it at that you would have been convinced that the paint was a zero VOC paint no matter what — unless you happened to know that you have to ask what happens when you add tints. When I asked, the answer was an honest, “it no longer is a zero VOC paint. It’s a low VOC paint. The tints still emit fumes.” Ah ha. A paint that is being marketed as a zero VOC paint is only zero VOC if it’s not tinted. But there’s no where on the splashy posters that admittedly show a can of white zero VOC paint that explains that. Unless you’re a minimalist, chances are good you’re going to be adding some colour to that paint — especially when the poster is right next to a display board with hundreds of colour swatches.

Will I be likely to use this “zero” VOC paint? I doubt it. Not because I don’t think it’s a good product, but merely because it’s being misrepresented and the company has lost my trust.

Another product that was making a big splash was a reuse product. But this time there was no real “green washing” per se.  The product itself was gorgeous and I was drawn in by the display and the colours and the idea of avoiding landfill. I interviewed the product representative and then my wheels started turning and questions started running through my head. The reuse product involved a lot of processing in order to get the effect produced and some of the chemicals used, while still being high quality, were pretty significant chemicals. Were they disposed of properly? Were labour laws met? How much energy and water was being used to repurpose the product? I don’t know because the information wasn’t offered up and the work is being done in a developing country — that in itself suggests that environmental and labour laws were lax — but perhaps they weren’t. In this case, however, the product was not being marketed as “green” it was only my jumping to conclusions that because the product was being reused it was green. Sometimes it’s a good idea to take a step back and do a little critical thinking when looking for “green” products.

So, you might be asking yourself then “When in the world do I know if a product is green?” Good question. Tomorrow, I’ll post a piece about some of the things to look for in a “green” product. Stay tuned….

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