If you buy a product that claims to include “50 percent more recycled material,” how do you know how much “50 percent more” really is? Did the manufacturer go from 20 percent post-consumer materials to 40 in its newest offerings? Or is the manufacturer simply obscuring the fact that its recycled content increased from just one percent to two? Herein lies the problem with unverified advertising claims.
The word for it is greenwashing, the corporate practice of touting vague or misleading environmental claims for a product. Greenwashing is nothing new—the idea has been floating around since the late 1980s since green marketing claims emerged as a major force in the marketplace. But now, with site-level LEED certifications and green retrofit loans hanging in the balance, getting honest about the real benefits of environmental materials is crucial.
The FTC has set forth a set of fairly detailed instructions for the kinds of claims that are appropriate and not misleading. However, that doesn’t mean that lapses don’t happen—in fact, manufacturers sidestep the rules all the time. For instance, you may remember the public outcry last year when it was revealed that Volkswagen's “Clean Diesel” technology wasn’t as clean as it claimed to be. In response, the FTC slapped VW with a lawsuit seeking injunctive relief on behalf of consumers. These kind of issues are only getting more prevalent—the Greenwashing Index, a consumer watchdog site run by EnviroMedia Social Marketing and the University of Oregon, contains hundreds of entries for inaccurate advertising across a huge range of industries.
In the case of home remodeling products, the issue of greenwashing is perhaps more pressing—if only because housing stands to have such a huge impact on global emissions. US residential and commercial buildings currently comprise about 40 percent of the country’s total energy consumption. And building those sites takes a toll on the environment, too. According to the Lima-Paris Action Agenda, greener construction materials and site-wide renewables could save the world about 3.2 gigatons of CO2 emissions annually.
Meanwhile, greening a home isn’t as simple as giving your laundry an eco-friendly makeover. Buildings are complex units with many independent systems: ventilation, lighting, insulation, HVAC—even the building envelope itself contributes heavily to the site’s net carbon footprint. And that makes it difficult for the average DIYer to calculate the actual impact of his or her improvements, since changes may affect multiple building systems.
Government Labeling Offers Broader Ratings, Less Stringent Minimum Requirements
One trusted third-party certification resides in the federal government’s environmental labeling programs, ENERGY STAR and WaterSense. A joint effort between the Department of Energy and the EPA, these verifications cover a huge network of products, from roofing materials to office equipment. Testing for these items is fairly extensive—the EPA only applies the label if products have been fully evaluated in an approved laboratory. Results are then verified by an EPA-recognized certification body. These certifiers must be able to attest to their independence by meeting a group of requirements passed down directly from the government. In this way, the EPA keeps the product labeling process fairly unbiased, so homeowners can feel confident that labeled products actually meet the EPA’s minimum requirements.
However, products are only required to meet the minimum specifications, and in many cases, that minimum is minimal indeed. For instance, central air conditioners need only be rated at 15 SEER or above –SEER being the industry standard for measuring unit efficiency. But the most efficient ACs now achieve SEER ratings at 25 and above. ENERGY STAR products certainly represent a great starting point, particularly for those homes sporting outdating and inefficient equipment and materials. However, many independent third-party certification systems maintain stricter requirements.
Independent Certification Bodies Ask Corporations for More Environmental Accountability
On the other hand, third-party verifications, like those coming from the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) for forestry products, or the Green Squared program for tile and tile accessories, measure impacts that go beyond energy efficiency or water conservation, demystifying murky claims that certain products are “green.” The FSC, for instance, focuses on how lumber harvesting and processing affect global forests and the residents that work and live among them. Its goal is to preserve biodiversity and protect at-risk ecosystems while defending the rights of workers and affected indigenous peoples. Products made from wood derived from such
forests, such as flooring, furniture, and paneling, must be certified by a third-party body before making a public claim. The FSC also works to maintain partnerships with industry providers to encourage more responsible lumber. For this reason, the FSC seal is seen as the gold standard for sustainable wood products.
SCS Global Services (SCS) is one of the premier third-party certification bodies. It is a leading authorized certifier for the FSC and Green Squared ecolabels, as well as more than 80 additional certification programs. Its Green Products Guide database helps DIYers find a wide range of prefab products and interior design materials, such as furniture, carpeting, textiles, and finishes, including many items with certified recycled content. Some of these certifications revolve around government programs run by agencies such as the USDA or the California Air Resources Board, while others are independently administered by SCS. SCS is well known for its high indoor air quality standards, under its Indoor Advantage Gold program, which applies to a wide range of products, and the FloorScore program, which tests for hazardous off-gassing from flooring finishes. Additionally, if you’re redesigning as well as remodeling, it certifies products to the BIFMA standard for furniture, attesting that a product was sustainably made. Finally, SCS has been one of the pioneers in life-cycle assessment, evaluating products from cradle to grave, issuing Environmental Product Declarations and Environmentally Preferable Product certifications. Overall, SCS Global Services’ certification are worth looking for whether you’re shopping for raw materials or finished products.
Cradle to Cradle is another well-regarded program that measures a product’s performance throughout its entire lifecycle. Cradle to Cradle’s aim is to promote the “circular economy,” a vision for manufacturing where existing goods are reused, repurposed and recycled, rather than just trashed for new products. Designed by the prestigious McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) consulting firm, items that sport the Cradle to Cradle certification must necessarily adhere to rigorous standards, due to the broadness of the organization’s goals. For instance, MBDC awards points to manufacturers that use 100 percent clean or renewable energy in their industrial sites, or those that strive to manage clean drinking water for the global population. Cradle to Cradle’s program is designed more like a college course than an evaluation, so it offers training materials and advice for the corporations who participate. It takes the long view on material impacts and corporate responsibility—as green certifications progress, it wouldn’t be surprising to see lifecycle requirements incorporated into more labels.
All in all, a third-party certification means a company’s claims for environmental good can be backed up by independent inspection, interviews, document audits, and when applicable, laboratory testing. And independent ecolabeling bodies adhere to strict requirements—with little, if any, incentive to promote one product over another. When shopping for greener materials and products, home DIYers would be wise to avoid the hype and seek out independently verified materials.
About the Writer
Erin Vaughan is a blogger, gardener and aspiring homeowner. She currently resides in Austin, TX where she writes full time for Modernize, with the goal of empowering homeowners with the expert guidance and educational tools they need to take on big home projects with confidence.