Greenwash Action

Defending Real Sustainability Standards

Beginning with the introduction of certification systems and eco-labels for organic food in the 1970s, there has been a proliferation of non-regulatory, market-based approaches to addressing environmental problems in the form of sustainability standards and certifications.

photo of engineers in a partly-constructed buildingphoto John Stamets for the Bullitt CenterSustainability standards have driven significant environmental progress in two key economic sectors –
building design and forestry.

Sustainability standards are voluntary norms seeking to address environmental, social, and ethical issues. Companies that adopt these standards demonstrate that their organization or products meet certain sustainability criteria. Most sustainability standards are independently certified and have an associated eco-label, which companies use for marketing. An example is, Fair Trade coffees and teas.

Over the past two decades, sustainability standards have driven significant environmental progress in two other key economic sectors – building design and forestry. In the building design and construction sector, the leading standards are the US Green Building Council’s “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” (LEED) rating system and the International Living Future Institute’s “Living Building Challenge.” In the forestry and forest products sector, Forest Stewardship Council certification is widely regarded as the gold standard.

Although not perfect, these sustainability standards, which some call “leadership standards,” have been genuine change agents in their respective industries and continue to improve with time. They codify levels of environmental performance that are high enough to require meaningful progress and yet are economically feasible, so that leading companies within the industry can adopt and promote them, thus helping create a market for the ecolabels. When enough companies conform to the leadership standard, a new status quo can be achieved that is more sustainable than that which preceded it, and then the bar may be raised higher still. Some call this process “market transformation to sustainability.”

Such is the vision and theory of change. But, as is often the case, there is a fly in the ointment.

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Special interests in the timber, chemical, and plastics industries that feel threatened by the leadership standards have been working to undermine them, developing and promoting “greenwash standards” that certify only partial or marginal improvements over business as usual. Examples include Green Globes in the building industry and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) in the forest sector. These standards are shaped by and ultimately serve the industries that fund them. In the case of Green Globes, that means large chemical, vinyl, and forest products companies and their trade associations, including the American Chemistry Council, the Vinyl Institute, and the American Forest & Paper Association. In the case of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, it means logging corporations.

The core purpose of greenwash standards is to defend the profitable status quo in the industries that fund them. They accomplish this by mimicking the leadership standards even as they water them down, thereby undercutting them in the marketplace and confusing professional practitioners and the public alike. These lax certification standards skillfully employ the lingo of environmental stewardship and may even represent real improvements in areas that do not threaten the interests of their corporate sponsors, such as energy efficiency. Making buildings more energy efficient is a good thing, but it does nothing to promote more sustainable forestry.

Greenwash Action, an Earth Island Institute project that is a joint initiative of Sierra Club and Greenpeace, works to defend leadership sustainability standards that are threatened by industry-sponsored greenwashing. Our current focus is the green building sector where the threat to leadership is immediate and pressing.

At a fundamental level, greenwash standards serve and protect – rather than challenge and transform – the business models of the industries that support them. Instead of investing in real change, special interests pour money into marketing, PR, and lobbying. They cynically argue that they are bringing “choice” to the marketplace and supporting a “Coke vs. Pepsi”-style competition among equals, when in fact they are trying to substitute an inferior imitation for the genuine article.

During the past several years, the industries that back Green Globes and the SFI have also been lobbying aggressively at both the federal and state levels to restrict use of the leadership standards and substitute their watered-down standards instead. So far, they have succeeded in banning the use of LEED for public construction in five states: Maine, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Ohio. After years of sustained political pressure, in 2013 the General Services Administration, a federal agency that is the nation’s largest owner and developer of real estate, included Green Globes as one of the acceptable certification standards for federal buildings, along with LEED and the Living Building Challenge.

Greenwash Action is employing several strategies to pursue its mission, including development of an online hub for supporters of leadership standards. Our website is a centralized repository for reports, white papers, news, and events related to these issues. Our goal is to provide useful, timely, and accurate information for everyone who wants to learn more about real leadership and greenwashing in the green building sector.

We also intervene in key policy battles. State and federal policy makers have been under tremendous pressure to abandon leadership standard programs and adopt greenwash programs instead. We reach out to policymakers and advocate for continued market support for leadership standards. We are also creating opportunities for collective action by our supporters, including sustainable design leaders, leadership standard developers, environmentalists, and those working for forward-thinking companies.

We are calling on the chemical, plastics, and timber industries to cease their attacks on the leadership standards and to tell the truth about Green Globes and SFI, and to either strengthen these standards or reposition them as entry-level certifications. Ultimately, we hold out hope for a truce in the “certification wars” so that resources that are currently fueling cycles of conflict can be used instead to support more sustainable practices around the world. 8913.jpg

For more information on Greenwash Action go to:

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