The Color Of Green Taking Several Forms

August 20, 2007
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As vice president of global sustainability for Interface Fabrics, a company that prides itself on sustainability, Mark LaCroix spends a great deal of his time educating the marketplace on what it really means to be “green.”

“Whenever I talk to people about green product, I make sure to point out there is no data out there that says anything other than that green is a color,” said LaCroix. “People are throwing around terms like green, environmentally friendly, earth friendly, sustainable, and there is a lot of confusion in the market around this.”

A recent spin-off of Atlanta-based Interface, which is arguably the nation’s most sustainable major corporation, Interface Fabrics has a great deal invested in a consumer’s ability to recognize green products. In the office furniture industry — its primary local market — a “green story” has become a market necessity. In the economy in general, both locally and abroad, green is now a marketing label on par with “low-fat” and “heart healthy.” In the same manner that a distributor of health foods would be concerned with consumers embracing low-fat brownies, many companies are wary of “greenwashing.”

“Companies that didn’t see the value in this only a few years ago are now recognizing how important this is,” LaCroix said. “Their first reaction is to panic, and they find some environmental story and market the heck out of it.”

Greenwashing is the practice of promoting programs or products as environmentally friendly when they are not, or sometimes an attempt to deflect attention from an organization’s generally negative environmental policies.

“There are a lot of dollars out there right now for green, and people are absolutely using it as a marketing tool,” said Kelley Losey of Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids, president of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum. “Some people might be getting into it for the wrong reasons, but it doesn’t really matter what door they come in. They’re going be forced to do the right things eventually. You can’t say all these things and not have somebody ask you to verify them at some point.”

In theory, something is green or environmentally friendly if it has less of an environmental impact than the standard. This can be measured in dozens of different ways, and need not consider other environmental attributes to make the claim. This was the driving force behind the U.S. Green Building Council’s introduction of the Leadership in Energy and EnvironmentalDesignGreenBuilding standards, the most successful green rating system on the market.

Although there are projects across the country that meet or exceed LEED standards that have not been certified, according to the council, only LEED-certified buildings are green buildings.

“If it doesn’t have third-party validation, you can’t make the claim,” said Richard Fedrizzi, council CEO and founding chairman, on a recent visit to Grand Rapids. “A green building is a LEED building.”

The LEED rating system is the council’s largest service offering, and according to its latest tax filing, responsible for much of its $10 million revenue. Regardless, the certification process is comprehensive, mostly transparent and consensus-based. Not only has it become the standard for a green building, it has influenced the standards for other products, as well. Product certifications such as Greenguard, Smart and MBDC Cradle-to-Cradle, among others, are being marketed largely on their ability to satisfy LEED criteria.

A notable problem in that approach is that meeting LEED standards does not necessarily make a product environmentally friendly. For instance, many manufacturers market Greenguard-certified products as green products: An air quality standard only, it is not a comprehensive measure of environmental impact.

The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association and the Association for Contract Textiles are both developing standards with a similar methodology to LEED. The BIFMA product standard will include 86 criteria. Both are being designed as new guidelines for the American National Standards Institute, the most comprehensive measure available for those industries.

In a joint report from the University of Michigan and IndianaUniversity published in May, the researchers concluded that the risk of negative publicity from greenwashing outweighed the benefits of promoting green activities for companies with other interests of questionable environmental impact. However, the report assumed greenwashing is an intentional act, when it usually is not.

“A few years back, a green product was something made from recycled paper,” said Paul Murray, environmental manager for Herman Miller Inc. in Zeeland, another of the nation’s leading sustainable companies. “Now we’re doing carbon footprints and lifecycle analysis. The target is getting more and more difficult to achieve to be considered a green product.”

Murray noted that products as varied as potato chips and shampoo are now using carbon footprints — the total energy used by a product — to prove green attributes. Another budding science, lifecycle analysis, tracks the total environmental impact of a product along the supply chain from raw material to use and finally disposal.

In the near future, standards such as LEED, which provide ratings based on how many green attributes a project has, will likely begin converting to a lifecycle analysis metric, according to Catalyst Partners principal Keith Winn, a member of a LEED advisory team evaluating the process. A common scenario is a West Coast LEED project importing materials with green attributes from the East Coast, a greater net environmental impact than buying non-green materials locally.

An attribute-based standard is also more suspect to technological advances. The LEED guidelines were recently upgraded to be up to 14 percent more energy efficient, making many earlier LEED projects less green in comparison. Likewise, the architecture and engineering community is readily embracing LEED attributes as standard practice. According to Jeff Remtema, president of Progressive AE in Grand Rapids, nearly every project the company designs incorporates LEED efficiency guidelines.

In this environment, green becomes even more of a moving target, with potential for advancement rivaling the electronics and computer industries.

“You have to do your research,” said Theresa Hogerheide-Reusch, principal of Reusch Design Services, which reviews LEED applications on behalf of the U.S. Green Building Council. “You have to understand how to find green products; you need to know what you’re looking for.”

In the end, whether a company or product is environmentally friendly may be up to the beholder.

Cascade Engineering founder Fred Keller is often considered the region’s foremost expert in sustainable business. His company has adopted sustainable practices as an internal philosophy and proved it as a business case before green was a selling point. But as its core business is plastic injection molding, the company could be accused of greenwashing.

Likewise, the new MetroHealthHospital in Wyoming is one of the region’s most notable LEED projects, but critics could call the project greenwashing for its contribution to urban sprawl. Wal-Mart, generally reviled by environmentalists, is a leader in the green building movement.

“A lot of times, the green movement gets hijacked and becomes a left-wing wacko thing,” explained Losey. “Then it becomes very extreme. It does no good to be socially minded and environmentally friendly if it puts you out of business.”     

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