Protecting against 'greenwashing'

"It's important that if we are going to be in this game, we understand the rules"
Jenni Chase
November 8, 2010

At the recent American Architectural Manufacturers Association Fall Conference, guest speaker Ellen Struck, director of business development for UL Environment, Northbrook, Ill., asked how many of us in the audience had recently purchased a "green" product. I, along with many other attendees, raised my hand. "Now, how many of you paid more for that product because it was green?" she asked. Looking around, I saw my hand wasn't the only one still raised.

Like many Americans, I place a monetary value on a product's "green" characteristics, but I want to make sure I get what I pay for. With the proliferation of "environmentally friendly" products on the market, it can be difficult to tell which products are truly "green."

According to Struck, "greenwashing" is on the rise, with the Federal Trade Commission suing at least five major corporations in 2009 for greenwashing violations. In an effort to curb this practice, the FTC proposed revisions to its "Green Guides" this October to make them easier for companies to understand and use. Full versions of the FTC's revised guides are available for review at, and the commission will accept public comments on the proposed changes until Dec. 10, 2010.

"In recent years, businesses have increasingly used 'green' marketing to capture consumers' attention and move Americans toward a more environmentally friendly future. But what companies think green claims mean and what consumers really understand are sometimes two different things," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, in a release. "The proposed updates to the Green Guides will help businesses better align their product claims with consumer expectations."

As architects continue to embrace green building, it is increasingly important that our industry clearly and accurately communicate products' green characteristics, to avoid inadvertently misleading customers. Specifically, the FTC recommends marketers at all companies avoid general claims that a product is "environmentally friendly" or "eco-friendly," and instead, provide specific information about the materials and energy used.

In some cases, the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program is a vehicle to do so. However, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution, says LEED AP Cathie Saroka.

"This is a competitive industry and we all want to participate and win projects," says Saroka, marketing director for Goldray Industries, Calgary, Alberta. "Unfortunately, that participation sometimes takes the form of 'greenwashing' our products under the umbrella of the LEED system in order to make them stand out from our competitors. But unless we are providing credible information, we are doing the whole industry a disservice.

"Many companies are taking their own environmental responsibility seriously, which is commendable and sorely needed in today's society," Saroka says. "However, in many cases, LEED may not be the proper framework to use when describing how we are doing our part to promote sustainability.

We all want to show how our products are green, but the reality is that in the more than 100 points available within the system, there are only about 12 ... that could be applicable to the commercial glass and glazing industry."

To help understand glass products' contribution under the LEED system, Saroka closely examines the main credits applicable to glazing products here.

"As players in the glazing industry, we are going to be called upon to provide our expertise at one time or another," Saroka says. "It's important that if we are going to be in this game, we understand the rules." 

Jenni Chase is content director for the National Glass Association. She can be reached at