During a recent meeting with a gypsum board product representative, I was sold a line that a competitor’s product was less environmentally friendly because of an ingredient that purportedly off-gassed high levels of VOCs. The rep wasn’t able to provide any evidence of this but pointed out that his products were tested for VOCs and therefore were better (his competitor’s were not tested, to his knowledge). I was candid with him about my skepticism. I suggested to the rep that pointing the microscope toward his products would reveal that, in contrast to his competitor’s products, one of the main ingredients was energy intensive to produce, the energy likely coming from coal fired power plants, resulting in more greenhouse gasses and harmful airborne contaminants than his competitor’s line of products. His products may have an edge over his competitor’s for VOCs but be worse in any number of other green product attributes. In some cases, far worse.

There aren’t many products on the market these days that don’t have a green story to tell, a green attribute to highlight. It seems that every company makes green products. The truth is that all products have environmental impact. A truly green product, over its life cycle, would need to create more energy than required to produce, clean the air we breathe, go well with a nice Chianti, and vanish into thin air at the end of its useful life. There is no such thing, and there will never be such a thing. No product has the right to call itself green. It is more accurate to say that products are, by varying degrees, more or less environmentally harmful than products X, Y or Z for some attributes, and more environmentally damaging for others. There are few clear winners among building products with respect to sustainability but that hasn’t stopped product manufacturers from claiming otherwise.

Inventing Standards

I have years of practice testing out inaccuracies and half-truths of green product claims. Specifiers are skeptics by their very nature, I think, which is a necessary skill when questioning product claims. A carpet manufacturer once claimed that a particular product line it manufactured was 89 percent recycled content. So sure was the company about this claim that they committed it to writing and printed it on thousands of brochures that littered hundreds of architect’s offices across the United States. When I asked where that number came from, nobody in the company could offer any data at all. To corroborate the claims being made (and to the company’s credit) the manufacturer engaged a third party verification organization, Scientific Certification Systems, to quantify and validate their “green” claims. Third party verification is something I recommend all manufacturers carry out to validate green product claims. The results of the verification for the carpet manufacturer were surprising, concluding that the product line evaluated contained anywhere from a minimum of 30 percent to a maximum of 50 percent recycled content, far less than the 89 percent originally claimed.

Earlier this month, a product rep dropped by to introduce a new traffic coating product being offered by his company. The rep claimed that his product was the only one among his competitor’s that was “low-odor.” When I asked how “low-odor” was being defined and by what benchmark the rep was able to make this claim, none could be offered. I do not know of any such standard. The type of traffic coating presented particularly nasty VOCs, whether or not one can smell them. Just like the old trick painters used in adding root beer to the paint can to make stinky paints less so and more bearable, knocking down the odor does not necessarily make a product any greener.

In a recent telephone conversation I had with a paint manufacturer’s representative, the claim that their products met Green Building Rating System requirements for regionally extracted and harvested materials points was made. His reasoning was that a large portion of his company’s products, by weight, are water and that the water used to make the paint is harvested/extracted within the boundary limit established in the rating system for the available points. I admit that this completely stumped me. He may have a valid point, but my advice to him was not to assume that his reasoning would be accepted by the rating system reviewers and not to make such a claim until he was absolutely certain it would be accepted. He admitted that he had no knowledge of a successful attempt at making such an argument, and it isn’t anything specifically addressed in the GBRS. Although it may be worth a shot, counting on points using this argument is, at best, a gamble.

Knowing the Standard

I have had several product representatives showcase exterior, low-VOC coatings and sealers that meet GBRS criteria for interior, low-VOC coatings and sealers. Using exterior, low-VOC products will not result in GBRS points for interior, low-VOC product requirements. The operable word for this group of GBRS is interior. I can’t fault product manufacturers exclusively on this issue, as many architects have also ignored that so-prominent-it-must-be-invisible part of the credit language and demanded that all paints and coatings, including those on the exterior, meet the standard for interior products. What’s a product rep to do? There may be some value in this, as one GBRS actually suggests that an innovation point could be awarded for using low-VOC exterior paints and coatings in addition to the interior paints and coatings points available.

I encountered a product rep a few years ago that insisted his product met the requirements for rapidly renewable materials in accordance with the GBRS credit requirements for this type of material. He claimed that the wood species used in his product, aspen, was harvested within a 10 year cycle. I asked for some verification of this because I know that aspen is typically harvested more in the neighborhood of a 25 year cycle for building products. He did finally get around to sending me the technical data that stated a 25 year harvest cycle. I doubt that he made that claim again.

Outlandish Claims

I don’t get as many “next-thing-since-sliced-green-bread” claims any more, since overall green building awareness and knowledge within the industry is so much more than it was even a few years ago. But I used to. One well-known industry association took a dog and pony show on the road once and presented to audiences all across America that by simply using concrete as a building material, 26 GBRS points were guaranteed. Most buildings I write specifications for have lots of concrete but none has gained even a single GBRS point due to use of that material alone.

I have run across several claims that using a single product in a building will result in the acquisition of a substantial amount of GBRS energy optimization points. Most recently a suspended acoustical ceiling panel, with the reasoning that highly reflective surfaces on the ceiling increase daylighting effectiveness and reduce energy use. This may be true but so much of the points for energy savings in the GBRS depend on the thermal envelope, the fixtures and conditioning equipment, and fuel type and source. It is disingenuous to claim that by merely installing ceiling panels, multiple energy optimization points will be acquired. Nothing was offered as proof that the claim was true. No case studies, no calculations-just well worded marketing department spiel.

Beware of the claims that GBRS innovation points are there for the taking by using green products and materials. Almost without exception, the easy innovation point claim turns out to be false. I have product literature at my desk right now that claims innovation points can be obtained due to the products being “extremely lightweight which reduces transportation energy and structural load on the building.” That is all we have to go on. Not nearly enough meat in that to satisfy the requirement for an innovation point. The litmus test for a successful innovation point is “quantifiable, environmental benefit.” As a long standing member of the USGBC’s Materials and Resources Technical Advisory Group, I can tell you that it is very difficult to write a successful innovation point. Before design teams buy such claims, they would be well advised to see proof before including any in the “points achieved” column of the scorecard.

Land Ho!

We are all getting better at understanding the requirements of green building rating systems for products and that knowledge is making the navigation through the waters much less fraught with danger. Product manufacturers and representatives are much better today at prefacing claims about gaining GBRS points with phrases like “contributes to …” and “can result in … .” Manufacturers and their representatives are also getting involved in the GBRS development process. Not only does this improve the rating systems but cultivates the ability among manufacturers and product representatives to speak about the rating system credits and points with knowledge and authority. While there are still those making bogus claims to the design community, I am encouraged by the many companies and product representatives committed to the green building movement and that offer accurate and truthful information about their green building product offerings. W&C