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Avoiding the Greenwash

Don't be swayed by eco-friendly claims. Questions to ask, and resources for answers, to help select products that will best meet green projects' - and the planet's - sustainability needs.

By Cameron Forte
August 27, 2014

Going green is now a business imperative as companies strive to cut costs, reduce their carbon footprint, and appeal to their customers’ growing concern for the environment. More than half of U.S. construction and architectural firms expect to implement green features in the majority of their projects by 2015, according to McGraw-Hill’s World Green Building Trends report.


While green projects offer an excellent opportunity for architects to satisfy clients and prove their design prowess, there are also challenges involved in green design. One of the most difficult is sourcing interior finishes and other products that actually live up to their eco-friendly claims. 


“Greenwashing” (advertising that makes products seem greener than they are) is unfortunately very common. If you are hired to design a LEED- or other green-certified facility, it is up to you to be aware of the real environmental impact of the products you spec, and to take steps to ensure the products you choose are as eco-friendly as advertised.


First step: educate yourself about sustainability.


Most false green claims are not intentional, but come from a lack of understanding of what “green” really is. Sustainability is a very complex subject. To understand what makes something sustainable or not, one must take into account countless physical, chemical, social, and economic interactions between humans, materials, soil, air, water, and the biosphere, as well as the impact of the material or process on the planet, people, and other life forms.


The best way to learn to identify false claims (and avoid making them yourself) is to educate yourself about sustainability. There are scores of resources for doing this, including LEED training, environmental awareness organizations such as the Natural Step, and sustainability-focused publications. One of the most effective ways to learn is to seek out and join sustainability groups in your area. Attending your local Green Drinks or Sierra Club meetings will allow you to learn from your local experts, and is a great networking opportunity as well.


Next: be familiar with greenwashing regulations.


One of the best resources for understanding and avoiding greenwash is the Federal Trade Commission’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, better known as the Green Guides. These rules for green marketers were developed in response to public outrage about misleading environmental advertising claims. They specify exactly how marketers may talk about green features such as recyclability, recycled content, compostability, degradability, non-toxicity, source reduction, and more.


The FTC offers a simple summary of the Green Guides, which is a good place to start familiarizing yourself with these guidelines. Perusing ads for green architectural products and making a game out of spotting Green Guides violations is a great way to develop a sharp eye for greenwashing.


Don’t take marketing claims at face value.


When you’re choosing products to use for your next green project, you may find yourself swayed by eco-friendly claims. Now is the time to put your sustainability education to the test. Here are four basic questions to ask yourself when evaluating how a product will contribute to your green project:


1.      Where is this product made? Distribution consumes huge amounts of fuel and greatly increases carbon load, especially for heavy products like flooring and tile. If all else is equal, choose local materials.

2.      What is the real impact of production? Marketers often fall prey to popular assumptions about a product’s environmental impact. For instance, “rapidly renewable” products such as bamboo are often touted as eco-friendly alternatives to wood. However, a recent report by the non-profit Dovetail Partners indicates that certified wood actually has a fraction of the environmental impact of bamboo.

3.      What about disposal? Sooner or later every product reaches the end of its usable life. How will disposal of the product impact the environment? Might it leach toxic chemicals as it degrades? Can it be composted, reused, or recycled? If so, will it require a special facility to do so, and how much energy will it take to transport it there? Some products that are eco-friendly in many ways may not make the grade when it comes to disposal. For example, a fabric blend made of recycled milk bottles and organic cotton can’t be composted or recycled – at end of life it goes into the landfill as conventional garbage.

4.      How will the product affect human productivity and well-being? It’s easy to focus so much on technical details that you lose sight of the real goal of commercial architectural design: to provide pleasant, productive, and healthy spaces for people to spend their working lives.


It’s important to realize that despite some marketing claims to the contrary, every product has an environmental impact. You will need to make compromises in order to make the most eco-friendly choices possible while still respecting your clients’ performance and budgetary expectations. By speaking to clients ahead of time and learning their priorities, you can then use the above questions to help select products that will best meet their sustainability needs.



Cameron Forte is the sales manager at Baltimore-based Interior Design Solutions, which helps companies all across the country change the look and feel of their buildings with Di-Noc and other architectural finishes.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

Kristen Richards