February 2005

Who Are the Green Police?

An editorial by Rich Christianson

I added a new word to my vocabulary by virtue of attending GreenBuild 2004, held Nov. 10-12 in Portland, OR.

"Greenwashing," an obvious spin-off of the word whitewashing, was bantered about several times during a press conference featuring Rick Federici, a founder of the U.S. Green Building Council and now CEO of that burgeoning group. Greenwashing was inserted into several questions fired at Federici by various members of the trade press to describe situations in which they felt companies or groups falsely claim their products are environmentally friendly or "green."

In their view, a product cannot be bona fide green if it is not recognized by an authoritative source, such as the USGBC's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Development rating system.

For example, in the minds of those members of the press who may have been brainwashed into thinking LEED is THE environmental seal of approval, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative is a greenwashed wood certification program because it was created by the American Forestry & Paper Assn. They consider the SFI to be a watered-down version of the Forest Stewardship Council's certification program, which is the only wood certification scheme recognized in the LEED rating system.

Greenwashing also entered the mix of questions concerning the National Association of Home Builders' new Green Building Guidelines. The voluntary standard, unveiled last month during the International Builders' Show, preempts the LEED-H green building standard for residential homes being developed by the USGBC. According to the NAHB, the guidelines are designed "to help mainstream home builders to incorporate environmental practices into every phase of the home building process while putting a priority on housing affordability."

The notion that a trade group could objectively develop a "green" standard that puts environmental concerns before corporate profits was unfathomable to the naysayers in the audience. Yet, the NAHB and other trade associations have long been proactive in establishing product standards that promote a better environment and energy savings.

To his credit, in answering these more pointed questions, Federici did not respond in kind by using the "G" word. In fact, ever the diplomat, Federici applauded the NAHB for developing the standard. He added that it "will serve as a baseline" for LEED-H, which the USGBC expects to roll out in the first quarter of 2006.

LEED's Mojo Workin'

The USGBC has made considerable headway in developing voluntary green building standards. It reports that more than 1,750 building projects are LEED-registered in all 50 states and 12 countries.

Since launching LEED-NC for new construction in 2000, the USGBC has released LEED-EB for existing buildings and LEED-CI for commercial interiors. In addition to LEED-H, LEED-CS for core and shell and LEED-ND for neighborhood development are in the works. In the last four years, the USGBC's membership has grown tenfold to encompass 5,500 organizations, including corporations, government agencies and nonprofits.

Boston and San Francisco are the latest of more than a dozen cities and counties to adopt green building ordinances requiring LEED certification for government building construction and remodeling projects. Several federal government agencies also subscribe to the LEED rating system.

While few would disagree that the motivation behind USGBC's green building initiatives are right for the time, not everyone believes the ends justify the means. As reported in Wood & Wood Products' September 2004 issue, 31 U.S. and Canadian trade associations have united to voice their concerns over what does or does not qualify for points in the LEED rating system. Members of the North American Coalition on Green Building include the AF&PA, the Architectural Woodwork Institute, the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Assn., the Composite Panel Assn. and the Canadian Plastics Industry Assn.

The thousands of diverse companies that are represented by the NACGB have a strong stake in the green building trend. Yet, none of these associations is allowed to have a formal say in the promulgation of LEED standards. Representatives for each of these groups rightfully fear that as more local, state and federal governments mandate that the "voluntary" LEED criteria be met, products failing to make the LEED green list will be at a serious disadvantage. For example, to receive LEED credits, wood must be FSC certified. Yet, there is no parallel requirement for steel or cement. Because there is no comparable certification program for these materials, wood is being held to a higher standard.

Federici said the USGBC planned to host a "wood summit," at which it would consider whether SFI and other wood certification schemes might qualify for LEED points. We hope that the meeting is held soon and that these alternative certification groups get a fair hearing and not merely lip service from the USGBC powers to be.

Anything short of that would be hogwash.


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