How to Fight Greenwashing: The Value of Third-Party Certification in Green Building

Conference Room - Green buildingBy Elise Hunter

I recently came across a line of roofing tiles advertised as “lower carbon footprint.” This nebulous claim begged a string of questions. Lower than what? How much lower? What scopes of emissions are included in the carbon footprint? Was it verified by a third party? Of course, none of this information was provided, because the statement was a classic example of greenwashing: a claim so vague that it cannot be proven or disproven.

Greenwashing is rampant. Overzealous marketers know that sustainability is gaining importance in the minds of consumers and corporate buyers, and they sometimes make claims that are vague, misleading, unquantifiable, or even completely immaterial to the product or industry. Bogus or unsubstantiated statements like “all-natural,” “eco-friendly,” and even “sustainable” are all too easy to find on everyday products, from cleaners to shampoos to paints.

The green building industry is a hotbed for greenwashing, reflecting the fact that green building is defined by a dizzying array of attributes. These attributes range from the material ingredients and relative toxicity of products, to the environmental impact of material extraction, to the actual performance of the building itself in its energy, water and resource usage.

To tamp down this greenwashing and spur environmental innovation, overarching green building standards such as LEED, Green Globes, and GreenPoint Rated have gained wide prominence. Their aim is to assess the “greenness” of buildings based on a comprehensive set of factors, as determined by third-party auditors. Underlying this building-level recognition are product- or material-specific certifications. Certified products or materials often bear a seal, or “ecolabel.” Architects, developers, designers, and manufacturers can look to these certification programs and ecolabels in order to meet criteria for green building standards.

One example is the internationally recognized Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which maintains a standard and certification program for “responsibly-managed” forests, and their corresponding timber and wood products, for buyers who don’t want to support deforestation. The LEED standard gives credit for the use of FSC certified wood in framing, flooring and interior finishes. The FSC standard is periodically reviewed by its knowledgeable member base to stay current with emerging forestry practices, new environmental issues and societal expectations.

In order to earn FSC certification, a forest management or wood products manufacturing company must be assessed by a third-party certification body (CB). My company, SCS Global Services, has been an active CB for FSC since FSC’s founding in 1993. The FSC standard is one of the most rigorous standards in the marketplace today; many others are less stringent. Despite the wide range in the quality and rigor of certification programs and ecolabels out there, at first glance it is often difficult to decipher the difference.

In order to be truly credible, green claims should be specific, measurable, relevant to the product, and confirmed by a third party CB. These principles are affirmed by the Federal Trade Commission’s 2012 Green Guides, which provides guidance for green marketing. The Guides now include a section on certifications and seals of approval, which encourages specificity of claims, and disclosure of the CB’s relationship to the company. While the Green Guides drive more credibility in claims, there are still gaping holes, such as a lack of guidance on use of the word “sustainable.” The FTC periodically imposes fines on some of the most flagrant greenwashers, but there is still much work to be done.

The verification of claims by a third-party CB can discourage exaggeration, white lies and other greenwashing pitfalls that occur when a company certifies its own products. CBs also tend to bring deep expertise on the standards to which they certify, while the product manufacturers may only have surface-level knowledge of the standards. To ensure their impartiality and confirm their competence and knowledge, the CBs themselves are regularly audited under an “accreditation” procedure governed by the owner of the standard. For example, SCS is annually audited by Accreditation Services International (ASI), the body that evaluates and determines a CB’s competence, or accreditation, to a host of standards such as FSC.

In an ideal situation, a green building would be chock-full of green elements and products, all of which have been verified by a third-party CB for specific and relevant claims, and the building itself would also be assessed by a third-party expert. In this sense, green building standards are “meta” standards. However, the world of sustainability claims, in the building industry and beyond, is still confusing and daunting. Resources such as The Ecolabel Index, The International Trade Centre Standards Map and SCS’ Green Products Guide are a good start. And of course, approaching any sustainability claim with a little research, common sense, and a healthy dose of skepticism can’t hurt.

Elise Hunter is a Marketing & PR Specialist in the Natural Resources Division of SCS Global Services.

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