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Greenwash and how to spot it

Sandy Patience explains how to test the green credentials of ‘sustainable’ products. Illustration by Jess Wilson

‘Greenwash’ is the dark art of marketing in such a way that misleads the consumer into believing that a product or service has positive environmental attributes.

The growing demand for sustainable materials has provoked a wide range of responses from the construction products industry. At one end of the spectrum are manufacturers driven to develop products that minimise their environmental impact, while at the other are ones who know a marketing opportunity when they see one.

Confusingly for the designer, all manufacturers, bar those who think sustainability a passing fad, are marketing very similar claims – not all of which are true. Defra provide detailed advice to manufacturers for making environmental claims, but it is guidance only, with little bite. Specification is challenging enough without having to establish the veracity of an environmental performance claim – so, with a view to helping sort truth from fiction, we reveal some of the more common tricks of greenwash.

Prefixing a name with ‘Eco’ or ‘Enviro’
Catching up with the bandwagon couldn’t be easier. Stick something green-sounding in front of the name of a product – et voilà!
• Ask why the product deserves its name and prepare to be entertained.

Green by association
A tried-and-tested marketing technique for when a product has nothing green going for it. The art department drums up some aspirational imagery – trees, flowers, blue skies and happy people will do nicely – and slaps it all over the literature and trade stand. Who wouldn’t want a part of that!
• Ask what the relationship is between the images and product.

The unsubstantiated claim
The manufacturer really wants us to believe that their product uses non-toxic/recycled/recyclable/low-embodied energy materials from sustainable/renewable sources, manufactured using non-polluting, waste-free processes operated by a happy and healthy workforce – but just can’t produce the evidence.
• Ensure that supporting documents don’t get lost in the post.

The hidden trade-off
One aspect of the product displays exemplary green credentials while diverting attention from other less desirable qualities. An example is where the manufacturer of a veneered wood panel points proudly to the FSC stamp on the decorative finish, but omits to list the origins of the core or mention the toxicity of the binder.
• Take a good look at all the constituents of the product.

Standard practice presented as a green feature
Among the many in this category, the ‘recyclable material’ claim is the most common, particularly when applied to metals. Steel and aluminium for example have long been recycled for economic reasons – after all, you don’t see cars being advertised as ‘recyclable’.
• Ask how the claimed feature varies from the product’s normal lifecycle.

The vague claim
Already well known from consumer products, producers will use empathetic, emotionally charged words that lack specific meaning. Common are ‘natural materials’ (carbon monoxide and arsenic are ‘natural’) and ‘non-toxic’ (all chemicals are toxic in certain conditions).
• Ask what is meant by the statement, then look out for more of the same as they try to explain.

The misleading claim
A common claim of this type, often involving plastics, is the one that suggests that a material is recyclable. Technically the statement might be true, but has the technology made it out of the laboratory, and is there really a market for it?
• Determine the reality behind the claim – is it warranted or is it over-egging the pudding?

The token green product
The one green item among the hundreds of non-sustainable products in the manufacturer’s catalogue. Guess which one gets wheeled out to represent the company’s ethical face!

Getting it right
Though still rare, look out for Environmental Product Declarations. EPDs are commissioned from independent specialist providers by manufacturers who want to support their claims. Data is based on a third-party Life Cycle Assessment in a format determined by ISO 14025, a member of the ISO 14000 family of environmental management standards. Declared information will include environmental impacts associated with the manufacture, use and disposal of the product. Though not in itself a green certificate and strictly non-judgemental in nature, an EPD is real evidence of a manufacturer who is aware of their responsibilities. Straightforward and inexpensive, there’s no excuse not to have one.

In the end, nothing replaces your own research – greenwash is most vulnerable when faced with an informed and determined interrogator.

Sandy Patience is an architect and editor of www.greenspec.co.uk

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