Will We See More Charges of Greenwashing?

John G. Swanson
November 16, 2009
THE TALK... | Codes & Standards

Survey Results for 11/18/2009:

Environmental group attacks on industry companies:

Will increase




Will come up now and then, but we won't see a big increase




Will fade away




The accusations of greenwashing leveled at three window and door manufacturers during Greenbuild generated quite a reaction from industry readers.  As with our poll respondents, most who wrote to us believe these kind of attacks are likely to continue. Most suggest environmentalist groups will be unfair in making charges, but they also see another challenge out there.

"Since there’s no real definition of what is 'green' and what is not, 'green' is in the eye of the beholder," writes Robert Maynes of Mathews Brothers in Maine. "Because of the shades of gray inherent in green, I believe no company will ever be able to do enough to satisfy the fringe elements, this particular ad a case in point."

"In response to your poll of greenwashing, I do feel these charges will only increase as more and more companies begin to make claims that they are green," writes Kyle Hendren of Amsco Windows. "Environmentalist groups will be sure to keep an eye on manufacturer's green claims. We've all seen the greenwashing charges in the auto industry and consumer packaged goods industry.

"As the building industry moves more towards green, there is going to be greater scrutiny on the claims manufacturer's are making," he continues. "However, it is currently very difficult to determine what is green or what makes up green. The marketplace needs a clearer definition of green so consumers can compare and choose products. Also, is the green label just for a particular product or does it encompass the entire organization and its entire product line? For instance, if an auto manufacturer made the perfect green automobile but also sold a gas-guzzling, low mpg model would it still be considered a green manufacturer?"

One manufacturer called to discuss the real target of the ForestEthics ad, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative wood certification program. Currently, the U.S. Green Building Council only recognizes wood coming from Forest Stewardship Council certified forests in its LEED rating system. USGBC members are now considering a change to open up LEED to other wood certification programs, including SFI.  Groups like ForestEthics don't want to see that happen, which makes them guilty of greenwashing themselves, the manufacturer asserts, because they don't look at the facts when it comes to these programs. Rather than focusing on SFI, he continues, such groups could do more good by looking at the 90 percent of the wood out there that comes from non-certified forests.  

"The challenge to the three window companies should have been softer and less harsh...less accusatory," writes Greg Neruda, who has 28 years of industry experience and is now working to develop his green building movement credentials. "Perhaps the real question is 'are window companies too fast or too slow in developing green products (and partnerships)?'

"Too fast is dangerous; R & D may be too hasty, sales and marketing quick on the trigger to announce 'green' positions," he continues. "Too slow is dangerous; left behind on the environment is risky corporate roulette. It's still a little early to damm the window industry if they don't, or damm them if they do, in how they approach 'green.'"

"The best we can do as responsible manufacturers is to keep on doing what is right, and appropriate," states Maynes."It makes no sense for us, as wood and PVC window manufacturers, to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Obviously, Sierra Pacific is in the business of growing trees, not decimating forests. To suggest the alternate is not only foolish, it’s slanderous."

Other readers suggest we need to pay attention to groups like ForestEthics and their concerns.  "I suggest we try to work together to solve our problems. New technology can be very profitable and those with their feet stuck in the mud get left behind," says Chuck Wooldridge of Santa Fe Specialties Ltd.

Not every environmental group effort should be seen as an attack on the pocketbook.  "The big picture is an economy based on unlimited growth will fail. That's in part what we are seeing today," he writes. "Recycling/repairing and retrofiting is more in line with what a growing population needs. Urban infill and mass transit are of just a few initiatives that countries like Japan have learned long ago, [and] become necessary for survival."

Personally, I think most of the industry has done a good job tackling the concerns of the green building movement.  I've said it before that we were ahead of the curve somewhat, delivering big improvements in the energy efficiency of our products long before such efforts were even considered green. Still, we probably won't get much credit for that, and I think it is likely we'll see more cases like this recent example where window and door companies get caught in the crossfire. 

None of us can please everyone and that is probably especially true when it comes to environmental groups. Hendren predicts that until the market can define green a lot better, consumers will be left confused and will need to dig deeper into claims to determine for themselves what is green. "And the watch dog groups will be sure to be watching our industry as we seek to answer these questions," he adds.  "A lot of companies are trying to be green–and not just in our industry–but aren't able to communicate those claims properly. This leads to confusion and misinformation in the public and the company gets a bad name for itself. Whatever green claims a company makes, it is best to have the scientific data to back it up, preferably from a third party."

By the way, the manufacturer that called offered some suggested reading to help stay out of trouble.  He recommended a white paper entitled The Six Sins of Greenwashing that can be downloaded from the Web site of Terra Choice Environmental Marketing.



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