'LEEDwashing'—the new wave in greenwashing

August 11, 2010

The rampant growth of the green building movement has brought with it the unsavory practice of greenwashing. According to Merriam-Webster, greenwashing is “the expression of environmentalist concerns, especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities.” In the building industry, greenwashing typically refers to the practice of making misleading or unsubstantiated claims about the environmental benefits of materials, finishes, or systems.

But there are other ways companies partake in the practice of greenwashing, says Jim Nicolow, AIA, LEED AP, leader of Lord, Aeck & Sargent's sustainable design initiative. “For instance, manufacturers will take a product that is on some level green and spend much more money promoting it than they spent on the effort to make it green in the first place. To me, that is greenwash as well,” says Nicolow, who assesses the legitimacy of green claims for the blog Greenwash Brigade.

Nicolow says the most prevalent form of greenwashing in the nonresidential building products market is what he calls “LEEDwashing”—the practice of making the claim that a particular product can earn a certain number of credits through the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating program.

“Every day, I read about how a roof system or a carpet line can earn LEED points,” says Nicolow. “No product in and of itself can earn LEED points. Products can legitimately help achieve LEED points, but I think manufacturers cross the line when they state that a product can earn points.”

Nicolow says too many manufacturers provide a cursory review at best of how their products relate to the LEED Materials and Resources credits. “They'll mention all the LEED credits that may tangentially relate to their product. For instance, some companies that offer low-emitting materials mention the Construction IAQ Management Plan even though it doesn't really play directly into the specifics of that credit requirement.”

Despite the widespread concern over greenwashing, Nicolow argues that the practice may actually provide some benefit to the green building movement. “I see greenwash as the 'gateway drug' for institutional change,” he says. “If companies acknowledge that there's a demand for green products and they go to the effort of greenwashing, then maybe over time that will lead to institutional change in doing more than the initial attempt at it.”

Read Nicolow's blog entries on greenwashing at: www.publicradio.org/columns/sustainability/greenwash.


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