Green Product Certification – The Demise of Greenwashing

Lucas Hamilton

Over the past decade we’ve witnessed the expansive growth of the sustainable building movement. Sustainable design and building professionals are constantly raising the bar in the creation of long-lasting, healthy structures that minimize carbon footprints.  A key factor in the propagation of this trend is green product certification.

The growing emphasis on green living and sustainable building has increased green claims by companies about their products and manufacturing processes.  False green product claims have come to be known as “greenwashing” and it has far reaching consequences – it harms the credibility of manufactures who do take sustainability seriously, as well as the consumer.  When consumers lose faith in manufacturers’ green claims after too many incidents of greenwashing, they may lose faith in the entire green building movement.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) continues to fine tune the Green Guides to provide more specific requirements for the green claims that manufacturers are making today. Of course the most important element is the enforcement of the Green Guides for companies that don’t comply or those making inaccurate or unsubstantiated green claims.

In the meantime, the best way to fight greenwashing is to use only products that are certified by an impartial, independent third party, such as GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, the U.S. Department of Energy, Forest Stewardship Council and Green Circle.   

Third-party certifications examine a variety of green performance criteria that are most important to the certifying body, as well as the overall sustainability of a building.  These include energy efficiency, low VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions and other contributions to high indoor air quality, moisture resistance, and high recycled content. Some certifications will focus on one criterion and are therefore known as single-attribute certifications. Multiple-attribute certifications look at several different green product characteristics.  It is important for manufacturers, consumers, builders, architects and building owners to be education on the importance of specifics and accuracy with third-party certifications.  With product certifications, the more detail, the better.

The most extensive, reliable certifications are those that involved life cycle assessments (LCA).  These assessments examine a product’s total impact on the environment throughout its useful life.  Environmental impact factors include: raw materials used, how the product is manufactured, how it performs in a building and what happens to it after its useful life has ended.  CertainTeed recently published an LCA for our vinyl siding products and revealed the results in a blog.

Green building product certification is a vital factor in the growth and longevity of the sustainable building movement.  Until more stringent standards are developed by the FTC, it is crucial for building professionals and product distributors to be educated on which product certifications carry the most weight.  By directing customers toward green building products with reputable, third-party certification you are helping to preserve the environment for future generations.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

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