How many times have you heard the phrase “green is the new black” in the past year? Sustainable building is hot, and a flood of new products tout vague and cryptic claims about being green. Referred to as “greenwashing,” these exaggerated assertions range from tiny overstatements to outright lies.
Determining whether the product you’re buying is truly green can be a tricky business. Ask questions; look for trusted seals of approval and set priorities for yourself. The following suggestions can help you separate fact from fiction to determine a particular product’s true sustainability.
1. Look for certification. Several well-respected green-certification programs give you some assurance of product claims. Their websites usually list products that carry the certification. See these groups' certification labels, and check for them on products you purchase.
ENERGY STAR: Energy-efficiency guidelines are set by the U.S. Department of Energy for appliances, heating and cooling systems, lighting, roof products, windows, and doors.
FOREST STEWARDSHIP COUNCIL: Sets standards for responsible forest management and certifies products from specific woodlands.
GREENGUARD INDOOR AIR QUALITY: Approves products with low-VOC emissions including adhesives, appliances, ceiling, flooring, insulation, paint and wallcoverings.
GREEN SEAL: Maintains environmental standards for many products, including paints, cleaners, windows, alternative-fuel vehicles and paper.
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design): The U.S. Green Building Council rates buildings, including homes, in categories such as water conservation, energy, materials and indoor air quality. The number of points awarded determines the building’s green level: certified, silver, gold or platinum. LEED certification applies to entire structures, not individual materials or products. Many manufacturers claim their product earns LEED points, but specific products only help a building qualify for those points.
SCIENTIFIC CERTIFICATION SYSTEMS: Certifies environmentally preferable products and services such as adhesives, sealants, cabinetry, carpet, doors, flooring and paints.
CRADLE TO CRADLE (C2C) Certification: Sets high standard for “environmentally intelligent” design, examining the entire lifecycle of environmentally safe and healthy materials.
2. Shop at trusted retailers. Green sales are booming. Small home-improvement stores devoted to sustainability are wonderful resources for safe, eco-friendly materials. Often staffed with enthusiastic and educated salespeople, a green showroom can be a trusted resource.
3. Ask specific questions about products. In the absence of a green certification or a local eco-retailer who can help you sort out product claims, ask the six simple questions in the sidebar to the left. These questions examine a product’s health and environmental impacts from raw materials to finished item.
You can also find much product information from the manufacturers themselves in the form of a Material Safety and Data Sheet, or MSDS. Request this directly from a retailer or manufacturer, or find it online at the manufacturer’s website or at MSDS Search. Retail store sales representatives might be able to provide some answers. If they don’t know, ask them to find out.
4. Set your priorities. Lastly, if you’re trying to decide between two materials, each with its own positive and negative environmental qualities, you may wish to examine your priorities and list them in the order they’re most important to you. Here’s a potential list:
NATURAL/NONTOXIC: is grown or collected from natural sources instead of mixed from synthetic chemicals
LOW EMBODIED ENERGY: doesn’t require large amounts of energy to manufacture, gather or transport, so it’s relatively non-polluting
SUSTAINABLY HARVESTED: gathered without compromising the health of the source
RECYCLABLE/BIODEGRADABLE: can be made into new products or fed back into the earth
RECYCLED CONTENT: contains a high percentage of materials that used to be something else
LOCALLY HARVESTED: didn’t travel more than 500 miles to reach you
DURABLE: built to last, doesn’t require ongoing maintenance
This article is adapted from Eric Corey Freed’s Green Building for Dummies from Wiley Publishers, to be released this fall.
How Green Is This Material?
Ask the following questions:
1. Where did this material come from?
• Is it from natural sources?
• Is it recycled?
2. What are the byproducts of its manufacture?
• Is the manufacturing low in pollution?
• Do we destroy something else to get this material?
3. How is the material delivered and installed?
• Did it travel less than 500 miles to get to you?
• Does installation require additional chemicals or materials for finishing?
4. How is the material maintained and operated?
• Is it durable? Can it be repaired easily?
• Does it require continual energy, batteries or replacement parts?
• Does it need to be painted?
5. How healthy is the material?
• Does it outgas harmful chemicals?
• Can you install it without gloves or a mask?
• Is it a potential allergen or carcinogen?
6. What do we do with the material once we’re done with it?
• Can it disassemble easily?
• Is it recyclable or biodegradable?
• Can it be reused?
A Word of Caution
Beware of false certifications or pseudo-nonprofits. Referred to as “Astroturf,” these fake grassroots organizations are typically funded by the very polluters they promote. For example, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) calls itself a nonprofit dedicated to “advancing the principles of free enterprise,” and it has been one of the most vocal naysayers about climate change. In reality, CEI is a front funded by Exxon Mobil, Pfizer, General Motors and the American Petroleum Institute, among others.
In the building world, the Vinyl Institute, a trade association representing vinyl manufacturers, spends a lot of money to promote the so-called energy-saving, environmental and health benefits of vinyl as a building product. The realities of vinyl and PVC are somewhat different. Referred to as the “poison plastic” or the “asbestos of the 21st century,” vinyl is considered one of the most environmentally damaging materials produced.
The Healthy Building Network has been educating consumers about vinyl. Greenpeace has a campaign showing how to go “PVC free." The Vinyl Institute, with an estimated annual budget in the millions, can continue to cloud the judgment of consumers through websites implying a scientific basis for vinyl’s healthy characteristics.
Case Study: How Green Is Concrete?
Here’s the inconvenient truth: There is no perfect material. Everything has positive and negative environmental aspects. Here’s a scenario: You’re replacing the carpeting in your bedroom with a wood floor. Should you choose bamboo that was sustainably harvested but came from 3,000 miles away? Or would it be better to select conventionally harvested wood from trees grown locally?
Many times, there’s no clear answer. To illustrate, let’s answer six green material questions about concrete, one of the most common building materials.
1. Where does concrete come from? Concrete is natural, made of sand, Portland cement, stone and water.
2. What are the byproducts of making concrete? The chief ingredient, Portland cement, requires an immense amount of energy to produce, the byproduct of which are greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
3. How is concrete delivered and installed? Concrete can be made locally or even right on the job site. The sand and water are local, but the Portland cement and some rock have to be shipped long distances.
4. How is concrete maintained and operated? Concrete is durable, can be left unpainted and is virtually maintenance free.
5. How healthy is concrete? Concrete is inert and does not release any harmful chemicals.
6. What do we do with concrete once we’re done with it? Technically recyclable, concrete could potentially be reused, though this doesn’t happen as often as it should.
If the most significant problem with concrete is the Portland cement, maybe we can use something else to change that bad verdict to fair or good. Fly ash, the soot byproduct of coal-fired electric plants, can substitute for 15 to 50 percent of the Portland cement in concrete. Currently, this saves 44 trillion BTUs (British thermal units) of energy annually in the United States. In addition, putting fly ash, which contains mercury from coal combustion, into concrete may help prevent fly-ash mercury from entering the air and water.
Some health experts are concerned about placing fly-ash chemicals into a building, but an EPA study suggests the chemical reaction of concrete neutralizes fly ash’s mercury content.
So, how does concrete stack up? Many people consider concrete that contains fly ash to be a green material.