"Greenwashing" is keeping your custom home from being green. What is it?
Farah Qadeer and Jack Baldwin (2022-11-19 11:35 GMT-5) - Transcript
For our next By Design episode, #Sustainability Spotlight @Farah and Jack of Reynard Architectural Designs discuss #greenwashing what it is, and how to verify that #customhome building products are actually certified by a reliable third party.
Farah Ahmad is a licensed architect, LEED-accredited professional in building design and construction, and nationally published journalist specializing in sustainable design and green building standards. Views expressed are her own.
Jack Baldwin is one of the managing partners and founders of the custom home design company Reynard Architectural Designs. Jack also hosts the By Design podcast which tells stories about architecture, design and inspired living.
What is Greenwashing?
Jack Baldwin: Hi, this is Jack Baldwin with Reynard Architectural Designs. You're listening to By Design today. I'm joined again by my very good friend, Farah, she is also known as @RenewableFarah on social media. Last time we connected, we talked about one of our projects that we designed and we talked about passive design and strategizing how to capture as much energy efficiency as possible.
Farah: I think a lot of homeowners that have checked it out got some feedback on how to incorporate passive design in a cost-effective manner. I would encourage anyone that hasn't seen that video to check it out.
Jack Baldwin: Today, we will discuss the topic of greenwashing. We hear the words ‘green’ or ‘sustainability’ thrown around quite a bit- the effort today is to put a little bit more context around it. So, what do we mean when we say greenwashing?
Farah: Greenwashing is the act of misleading consumers or promoting a product or services as being green, when there might not be any substantial evidence behind it and it has just become so overly saturated in the content that we're seeing. Greenwashing has become a marketing scheme, to the point where there's so much information out there and there's all these buzzwords. The point of today is to really clarify, what is actually green, what's the true definition of sustainability? And, how do we get back to that? So, we're going to empower homeowners today.
Jack Baldwin: The terms green and sustainable are value words that play on a core personal value, which I know you're very passionate about. Like anything that people put value in, sometimes there is manipulation put on those values that don't actually have any substance to them.
Farah: Exactly, and the reason why we're talking about green buildings and green washing is because greening buildings is important, right? Let's let's just get back to the basics here- we know that buildings are responsible for 40% of global energy consumption, in the US they're responsible for over half of our total greenhouse gas emissions and then globally, they're responsible for 50% of CO2 emissions- so the environmental impact that the building industry has is so important to capture!
Jack Baldwin: That’s a big role that buildings have to play. I'm going to pull up an image that you shared with me which is kind of representative of a classic example of greenwashing. When I initially look at this picture, I think this is a really cool building. But if we peel back the layers, what's happening here?
Farah: This is a 27 story tower in Mumbai, a residential luxury building, which was marketed as this eco- tower. But really, this green wall system and hanging gardens that are also cantilevering out are add-ons that aren’t engaging the building with nature and aren’t offsetting the massive emissions and cost to construct this project. These are distracting gimmicks. While they're claiming to be bringing nature into the building, there were excessive resources and energy and emissions that were consumed in order to create this building. This is not a green building. This is an exaggerated example, but it's one that we've seen thrown out by luxury firms all over the world. What's happening is everyone is making environmental claims, right?
Jack Baldwin: It's cosmetic. What's the substance of green here? This image is helpful for showing us a very literal way where we're putting something green on top of a project. My next question is where do we see greenwashing specifically in the design and build community?
Farah: I think there's three target areas that we can take a look at today: building products, certification programs, and the hospitality industry. There are certain things that we can do as responsible consumers and as homeowners that can help us verify what is truly green.
Farah: When we start with building products, the first thing you want to definitely do is take a look at any labels that are listed on your products. For example, if we look at the ENERGY STAR website, we can see examples of labeling.
Farah: If you see a label, that’s a good sign because you've got a verified authority that is going through that certification. However, the next step for you to take is to go through a database. On this public website, you can see product specifications and understand how it was certified. What are the specifications of that product that make it a green product? You can look at its performance. So, the first step is for a consumer to go on a product database and just verify that that product is still certified. Make sure the certification is valid and keep in mind that products are always changing. Specifications are always changing. ENERGY STAR, for example, has its own list of guidelines for when something might need to get re-certified. If a product is discontinued, maybe it no longer meets federal standards? You need to question if that product is still certified to today's energy standards. You can also check that there isn't a more efficient model of that particular product out. In short- make sure you check your product is still certified under the current database and that there isn't a more upgraded model of that.
Jack Baldwin: As the codes and the certification process become updated, you find out what's more current. We at Reynard care a lot about what these products that are going into these new homes are actually contributing. These first steps are not something hard to find. Let's talk about the certification process itself. Where can you find some of that technical information?
Farah: The next step is to make sure you have technical information that's publicly transparent to back the certification. If we take the cradle to cradle certification as an example, the website is very transparent about how the product is certified, and how to determine, for example, if your product is eligible for certification. You're going to see a lot of reference documents here that give information on the testing, ie VOC content for air quality.
Farah: There is also a technical user guide on this website available to the public. If you see information like this where the standards are documented, then you know there are a lot of different layers of accountability for this particular product. They're laying out for you step by step what it takes to become certified. If I see something like this on a certification program database, I'm going to trust it more.
Jack Baldwin: This is an example of a third party organizations that is making its resources publicly available and user friendly,
Farah: Yes, and on this website, there was also a link for finding products via a database to see if the product is truly certified. This website will allow you to find a local company that is certified to assess the product to make sure that it is cradle to cradle certified. This just provides another layer of credibility.
Jack Baldwin: Now we're going to talk about another very common building product that a lot of people will probably recognize because of the good branding. One of the things I noticed when I look at this is a very common piece of foam insulation that goes into a lot of homes. What can you tell us about this product?
Farah: So we're going to talk a little bit about greenwashing within the industry. Look at the insulation value, which is your R value that's listed on the product. This is a two inch thick board which is rated at R-5 per inch. So, this is an R10 insulating value. However, In large print is this note at the bottom of the insulation board. If you read carefully, it indicates that the R value that's listed on the board is rated at that R-value at 75 degrees only.
So what does that mean? It means that your insulating value for this building product is at R-10 only if you are at that temperature. It's actually not going to perform at R-10. Note that certain insulation types will improve as the temperatures drop and then certain installation types will get worse when it's cold outside.
Polyiso insulation, for example, will decrease to as much as a quarter of its R value when the temperature drops. Other installation types will actually improve as it gets colder outside, ie fiberglass insulation, batt insulation, expanded polystyrene, etc. Again, we don't want to take these insulating values at face value. We want to be aware of what the insulating value of this product is at its actual tested performance. That might mean, you may need to add more insulation to get what's called your effective R value versus what's called your rated R value.
Jack Baldwin: I can see a homeowner really easily getting excited about improving the R-value of their home and reducing energy costs and yet not seeing that fine print.
Farah: It’s all about being a more informed homeowner.
Jack Baldwin: Right, and that brings us to the next point. Specification sheets are huge in construction. Part of the design process is delivering a good one, so that when you go to build, you have something you can pull from.
Farah: A specification sheet doesn't have much information about the actual product itself is a red flag.
Farah: This particular specification sheet has detailed information about the product testing. We know that ASTM is a national standard that prescribes performance values products can meet. This is the kind of information you want to make sure is readily available to you versus a simple table that just has your thickness and R value without much context and which might require you to do a lot more digging. It's like having a marketing brochure versus a technical guide.
Building Certification Programs
Jack Baldwin: Now that we’ve talked about what to look for to validate a building product’s claimed performance, let's talk a little bit more about the building certification programs there.
Farah: When it comes to greenwashing with building certification programs, what we want to focus on is some of the parameters that guide certification programs. One item to look out for with green building certification programs is that they might not be flexible. There are prescriptive requirements that you have to follow by the book- however, there might be interpretation that's needed. For example, if a project is located in a specific climate zone, that certification program might not allow you to adopt your performance standards to that particular climate zone. Secondly, with certification programs, you also want to look at how it started. A certification program that has been funneled into law or code would make me believe there is more legitimacy versus an expensive certification program that is out there to benefit a group for monetary reasons. Therefore, you want to look at the drivers behind that certification program. Ask yourself a few questions- how is it developed? How many homes or projects have been certified under it? When was it first established? Additionally, if a certification program does not include third party verification and instead asks someone to ‘self-certify’ their results, that’s a red flag as well. You want to know that an accredited or licensed professional is reviewing a project’s sustainability performance. You also want to be on the lookout for projects that market themselves as green, when they are really just doing what’s already required by local energy codes or green zoning criteria!
Jack Baldwin: In this case you're bragging about meeting the minimum standard.
Farah: Exactly, that's all it is.
Jack Baldwin: It's so great that somebody like you has gone through the research and the preparation and the advice so that when people are looking, they are feeling empowered. They can ask better questions and go to multiple sources too. Let’s shift topics to another market sector with greenwashing- ecotravel. Where are we seeing this?
Farah: The hospitality industry is a big culprit- in the last seven or eight years that I have traveled, I’ve noticed a lot more signage in hotel rooms about sustainability. However, their operations don’t necessarily match. One small example is reuse of towels that are advocated for in hotels- the next minute you know, housekeeping is already replacing your towels. I just want people to be aware that there is a lot of signage in hotels, but often times, there's no enforcement. I stayed at the Hyatt Regency in Maui where, when you opened up your balcony door, the air conditioning would just shut off right away.
Then, there was a lot of signage on the property to educate people about some of the benefits of recycling water and conserving energy. The hotel does a great job of just educating passersby on the property and strategically placing the signage on pathways so that people could leisurely read them and be reminded of green practices. I think that's a great way of matching a hotel's products and services and operational activities with the campaign of going green versus just placing a sticker or a label and not following up.
What causes greenwashing?
Jack Baldwin: So we’ve reviewed building products, certification programs and the hospitality industry, which you identified as some of the areas where you see a ton of greenwashing. Can we linger on why greenwashing happens?
Farah: The reason why it's happening is because we've got something called green fatigue, where there are just a bunch of buzzwords like sustainability and green and high performance being thrown out there. That's why we've got so much confusion- there is just too much information out there. Another cause of greenwashing is the verification of building performance based on construction documents and not actual site observation or follow-up.
How can you protect yourself from greenwashing?
Jack Baldwin: What are some of the things that we as homeowners can look out for, to be more cautious and prepared?
Farah: Definitely look to your building science professionals. Your architect or builder should be equipped to tell you about the actual substance of the product or the certification program. They should also have experience from past projects that you can draw upon- ask them how a particular product panned out and what the successes and challenges were. Additionally, going back to what we were looking at during the first half of this episode, just look out for third party certification. Moreover if you can't readily reach a professional, you can do some basic research yourself- go beyond the marketing brochure and look for certifications and make sure that there is a public database for which you can verify things.
Jack Baldwin: Right.
Farah: It is also helpful to understand that a green product may not incorporate all aspects of sustainability. So for example, an energy-efficient product is not necessarily also one that is also recycled or extracted responsibly- it's not meeting the whole picture of sustainability, right? So a green construction material isn't always truly green. If it's being delivered from hundreds of miles away, instead of locally, that isn’t green.
One should also be aware that green should never be a tacked on solution- it should be built into the design and construction process from the very beginning. So, if you feel like you're being oversaturated with a green concept of a building as an add-on service, hold your professional accountable. Don’t be afraid to ask, “What more can we do beyond the baseline local requirements to make this even better?”
And, it comes down to really just something that we talked about in our last episode- taking a look at your current project and reducing what your existing building loads. Create a manageable footprint with your passive design features, reuse and reduce, and then look to technologies or other products to offset that load. And you know, I just want to emphasize that I've gone to many building trade shows and I've been told that, for example, this is the best product out of its competitors- but you have to do your research and compare products.
Jack Baldwin: Sometimes our eyes are attached to marketing. I love to market for our company all the time, but we want to have some integrity to it. So I think you did a really great job of helping us ask some good questions and bring some validity to the marketing aspect.
Farah: Thank you, Jack. I hope that homeowners become more empowered to just look beyond the communications materials that are out there and do a little bit more digging.