Looking for Greener Pastures

John G. Swanson
February 15, 2008
COLUMN : Opening Remarks | Sales & Marketing

Most window and door companies tout the fact that their products are energy efficient. Many want to go further and say their products are green. But what does that mean?

Is it a product’s U-value or solar heat gain coefficient? Is it some recycled content, certified wood or lead-free PVC? 

If you’ve covered all those elements, can you say your products are green if your company isn’t green somehow? What yardstick can you use for that? Is it good enough to follow the rules and regulations set forth by the government, or does your company have to do more? There are manufacturers that have found customers for sawdust, to make sure no part of their wood goes to waste. Some regrind vinyl and use it again. Some companies have invested significantly to reduce water consumption, while others have gone beyond regulatory requirements when it comes to cleaning up what their plants send out into the air or wastewater system. Some companies have implemented programs to minimize and/or take back packing and shipping materials for recycling.

Given the cost of gas, many are looking at making sure their trucks and service vehicles are more fuel efficient. A lot of green initiatives simply make sense on the bottom line.

Still, I’ve heard several window and door executives express some frustration that they just don’t get any credit for their green efforts. Despite the usual grumbling regarding codes, standards and regulations, I think there’s actually interest out there for a checklist with requirements that could be fulfilled so a company could say, “Our products are green and we’re green too.”

It’s an admirable desire. Part of me thinks it’s an idea that should be pursued. Another part of me thinks about all the green ads I see on television and in print and wonder, “why wait for some official program?” Not that I doubt Toyota is doing what it can for a better environment, but did they get a third party’s blessing before having people build a model of a Prius from sticks and leaves in one of their commercials and saying they were committed to making as small an environmental impact as possible.

Sure, there are good reasons for caution and maybe checking in with the lawyers. No one wants to be accused of “greenwashing.” I certainly wouldn’t encourage that, but I think many window and door companies are being too hesitant when marketing their products and even themselves. It seems they fear that if they try paint themselves “green,” Greenpeace will find a reason to be picketing outside their plant the next week. I don’t see any reason good corporate citizens taking legitimate steps to make energy-efficient products and minimize their environmental impact should be afraid to say it. (The Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov), by the way, offers downloadable guidelines to green marketing.)

There’s another part of me, however, that says, “Don’t pin your hopes on green.” And here I’ll cite Eric Ryan, one of the co-founders of a well-known green company, Method, which makes household cleaning products first popularized in Target stores.  Many companies fail, he suggests, because “they think the green consumer market is growing so all they have to do is target that and stick a green leaf on the label.” A green advocate, he’s not discounting green efforts, but emphasizes that green is just one product attribute. “You have to appreciate that green credentials are not the only reason a customer buys a product, and you have to focus just as much on price, quality and design.” The goal for a truly green company, he adds, should be “to make sure that all products in a market are green.”

In some ways, that’s already the case in the window and door market. The past 20 years or so have produced such a wave of product improvements, we’re all green. Now I know that’s an overstatement, and I’m sure I could find environmentalists who could point out our faults, as an industry and at individual companies, but few can deny the strides we’ve made. The Department of Energy’s efforts to tighten Energy Star requirements for windows, doors and skylights are a recognition that our market has transformed. They want to transform us again.

And I suspect we will. Green building is but one element in efforts to combat global climate change that some see transforming our whole economy. I don’t know how fast that change will come, but I would encourage window and door manufacturers, distributors and dealers to tell their green stories in the meantime. There are opportunities for individual companies out there and I think the more those stories are told, the better off we’ll be as an industry.