Scientific Certification Systems

The term “greenwash-ing” has been aroundabout as long as its root word, relied upon to ­unearth exaggerated or untrue claims (made on purpose or unwittingly) about the environmental impact or value of a given product, including homes.

But given the rapid proliferation of both green products and buildings across the country, efforts to better define the term—and ferret out offenders—are relying more on science than trial-and-error or taking a label of ingredients at face value. “The trend now is to scientifically certify green claims against a battery of standards and test methods,” says Ed ­Wyatt, program manager for material content certification at Scientific Certification Systems in Emeryville, Calif., one of an increasing number of independent entities and public agencies providing that service.

Even then, however, Wyatt and others see manufacturers and builders misusing the certifications they earn once the marketing staff takes over. “There’s no such thing as an ‘eco-friendly’ certification,” he says, recalling a recent manufacturer’s packaging claim. Far more prevalent than misleading PR, he says, are truly unsubstantiated claims for which no scientific basis exists.

To combat greenwashing, builders and specifiers are ­asking for more information and third-party verifications, and applying comprehensive, software-enabled life-cycle analysis metrics to gain a more solid footing for their projects.

They also are relying on green building program standards to guide them to the greenest ­products and building practices. “They give you a framework with which to judge if something meets the qualifications of a truly green product,” says Fort Worth, Texas–based builder Don Ferrier, such as specific water flow rates for plumbing fixtures, as verified by a third party, as opposed to something simply marketed as a low-flow faucet.

Failing to go the extra mile can put builders at risk of ­becoming greenwashers themselves. “Currently, it’s easier to greenwash a building than a product or material,” says Carl Seville, owner of Seville Consulting in Decatur, Ga. Even if a builder is diligent in his specifications, he says, the value of the greenest materials can be wasted on a poorly built and ill-­performing house. “You can’t put lipstick on a pig.”

Just as builders, architects, and specifiers are starting to hold manufacturers accountable for their environmental impact claims, home buyers are becoming more eco-savvy, says Wyatt, perhaps to the point of questioning the value of using environmentally sustainable products and materials on a 4,000-square-foot house that required more material to build and uses more energy—even if ­efficiently so—than a smaller home. “It’s a slow process, but eventually they’ll put the products in a larger context.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Dallas, TX.