Are you green or 'greenwashing'?

It's no secret green products and services are hot. Being green can give your company a significant marketing and business development advantage. As it is with every new, good idea, some have overstepped the line of going green into the world of "greenwashing."

Greenwashing is described as the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly. Additionally, it is the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing. The U.S.-based watchdog group CorpWatch ( defines greenwashing as "the phenomena of socially and environmentally destructive corporations, attempting to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment."

Culprits of greenwashing are most often found in children's products, cosmetics and cleaning products industries. One study found that 98 percent of the products on store shelves claiming to be environmentally friendly are, in fact, not. Congress has even held hearings to explore the rampant practice of greenwashing.

The construction industry is also guilty of greenwashing, often times unknowingly. Many of the green products that our industry relies upon may not actually be so green. If you want to brand your company and projects as green, the onus is upon you to verify that your vendors are not greenwashing. Third-party, objectively verified results are the only way to truly be assured of the green validity of a product. However, until all products claiming to be green are required to carry an official certification (and that time may never come) there are ways to determine just how green a product or service may be.

Ask for proof

One study found that 22 percent of green consumer products bear some type of environmental badge that has no inherent meaning. Don't be fooled by false certifications. Presently, there are no official certifications available. It is solely up to the consumer to determine if a product is what it claims to be.

Be cautious of vague information

Be concerned about companies that cannot clearly and definitively describe their green practices. When asked about our manufacturing practices, my company provides specific facts and figures. For example, our 50,000-square-foot manufacturing plant is 100 percent solar powered; we have a minimum recycle content of 35 percent and can have up to 100 percent recycle content, etc. Red flags should be raised if your vendors cannot give you specifics about their green practices and products.

Is the claim irrelevant?

Carefully analyze the green claims that are made. For example, a paint that promotes itself as a lead-free paint doesn't make that paint any safer than others because lead has been banned from paint for more than 30 years. If the claims about a product aren't relevant, then they are just hype.

Lesser of two evils

Don't be fooled into believing that a green component can make a bad product better. Think about organic cigarettes. Yes, the tobacco may be safer, but smoking the cigarette will still kill you.

Green trade-offs

Just because a component of a product or service is green doesn't mean that the claim of being green still applies. Energy efficient electronics that contain hazardous waste materials are a good example of this. If the sum of the whole doesn't equal green then the vendor may be greenwashing.

How can you ensure that your company and/or your vendors aren't greenwashing? A few basic tips will keep you on the road to green.

1. If you are claiming to be green, make sure your product satisfies at least one green building requirement. Make sure you and your team are thoroughly educated about industry standards as well as state and city requirements.

2. Do not claim credits that do not apply to your product or to current building projects. By keeping the facts straight, you will avoid inadvertently making false claims. When it comes to construction, it is the present that matters. Past green efforts aren't relevant to current practices and projects.

3. If you are not unique, don't try to sell yourself as such. Remember the definition of greenwashing is the disingenuous spin of products and services.

4. Don't claim that a product is local if it's not harvested/extracted or processed locally. Blurring the lines when it comes to what defines a local product or other attributes to being green isn't an acceptable practice. Instead of exaggerating, strive to make your products meet the criteria.

5. No product can be a LEED certified or LEED qualified product. Only buildings can be LEED certified and only professionals can be LEED accredited. Just because a product is used in a LEED building does not make the product LEED certified or qualified.

6. Manufacturing practices do not affect LEED credits. Claims to the contrary are greenwashing.

7. Don't sell yourself short. If your company is truly green, and going by best practices to promote sustainable measures, let others know. You may be able to teach them something!

Hill is director of business development for r3 Building Systems and a board member for CREW San Diego.

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