Sustainable Apartments

Recognize the ‘six sins’ of greenwashing before your residents do.

By Barbra Murray, Contributing Editor 

Greenwashing is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s akin to whitewashing—the utilization of deceptive words in an attempt to embellish or conceal certain features. Greenwashing simply concerns this practice with regard to environmental friendliness. The deceptive practice is out there, taking the shape of claims regarding everything from sustainable development to recyclable content.

When one knows what to look for, greenwashing is somewhat easy to identify. TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc. offers a list of the basic abuses, or what it refers to as “the six sins of greenwashing.” The general acts include: the sins of no proof; vagueness; irrelevance; lesser of two evils; hidden trade-off; and perhaps the mother of them all—fibbing.

“Greenwashing has become really prevalent over the past decade,” Cliff Goldman, president of textiles development company Carnegie, says. “I think [real estate] developers have to ask the hard questions and expect really in-depth answers and not superficial ones.”

Some manufacturers prey on multifamily building owners’ desire—and what’s rapidly becoming a veritable need—to green their rental communities. As is the case with most violators of truth in advertising, the motivation boils down to the almighty dollar. “We know that there are obvious examples and less obvious ones, and that unfortunately, the green aspect is very often used as an excuse or as a selling tool,” notes Jan Vingerhoets, CEO of contemporary lighting company Flos USA Inc.

In the multifamily industry, the open touting of an apartment’s environmentally friendly features is a sign of the times. In a 2011 survey of 1,053 renters who had moved within the six months prior to the conducting of the study or were planning to do so within six months, consumer analysis firm Strata Research found that 62 percent of participants responded that having an environmentally friendly apartment was an important factor when choosing a dwelling. And nearly half of those people described environmental friendliness as not just an important factor, but a determining factor.

Residents aren’t just looking for centralized recycling bins. They want to know that the paint on the walls is of the low-volatile organic compound variety, that the windows are energy-efficient. The growing demand for green apartments is not lost on owners and developers, who are incorporating sustainable offerings into their properties at increasing levels.

However, in the rush to please prospective and existing tenants, those at the ownership or management end can easily fall victim to greenwashing because labels like “environmentally friendly” or “green” can have different meanings to different manufacturers. In the end, these declarations can range from the legitimate to the downright deceptive.

“It also comes down to [defining] what is green and I think it’s a topic that is up for discussion. We all know about recycling, using recycled [content] and also the least possible amount of packaging—but there’s an endless watch list. Sometimes decisions are made through guessing, not through science,” adds Vingerhoets.

“For most of your building products, you’re having to deal with manufacturer claims, and there are challenges—the claims can be vague, or they’re only talking about attributes like ‘contains recycled content,’ which may or may not have a huge impact on the actual full life of the product,” explains Melissa Vernon, director of sustainable strategy with carpet and flooring manufacturer Interface Inc. “But it’s all a tradeoff. [A manufacturer] may be there with a recyclable carpet product, but it doesn’t perform very well, or you have to use three times as much glue.”

InterfaceFLOR modular carpet tiles meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s low-emitting carpet criteria and, along with the company’s signature TacTiles, allow for strong, glue-free installation.

When dealing with multifamily suppliers that aren’t as forthcoming with specifics about their product’s “greenness,” customers can rely on some obvious clues as alerts. The word “sustainable,” while utilized ubiquitously and not necessarily in an attempt to dupe, is in and of itself somewhat deceiving.

“If a product touts itself as being sustainable, that’s always a red flag to me because there are no sustainable products,” says Vernon. “All of these products have environmental impact; it’s just a matter of whether we work to reduce the impact.”

The question becomes, how friendly is a product’s environmentally friendly designation, and is it really friendly at all? Developers, focusing a great deal of their attention on staying on schedule and on budget, frequently look to third-party participants to navigate the green waters.

“I think owners rely on architects and designers to sift through what’s real and what’s imagined,” says FLOS’s Vingerhoets. “You hire an architect to design your building or your space and with that should come the expertise on understanding what’s real on green issues and what’s not.”

But, Vernon notes, commercial architects and designers don’t always have the time to sort through all the claims made by manufacturers. “Everybody wants the pre-approved, pre-screened list of green products,” she adds. “It’s like, ‘I don’t want to have to think about it; just help me.’”

However, there is no universal consensus, no master list from which a developer, architect, designer or property manager can check off all the boxes. What is available are individual certifications for different product types which, in lieu of a master list, can cover a lot of ground.

NSF/ANSI 140—Sustainability Assessment for Carpet, introduced in 2007, is the first national sustainability standard for carpet and has the American National Standards Institute’s green stamp of approval. In the furniture industry, the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association and NSF International’s ANSI/BIFMA e3 system is regularly used as a respected sustainability measuring stick. Manufacturers that make the effort to be honest in their claims do not have many other options for distinguishing their candidly portrayed green features from the bogus ones.

“You try to stay positive about your own product, pointing out important characteristics that are measurable and/or certifiable,” Carnegie’s Goldman says. “The biggest negative effect is on clients, and of course, competing manufacturers who are doing the right thing, who know that their competitors are bending/omitting truths about their products.”

Products are more reliant on individual certifications of certain attributions like indoor air quality, explains Goldman. “One of the more important ones we do is for our XOREL product. XOREL got a cradle-to-cradle silver certification which means that the product has been vetted from its raw material inputs to the production itself to its effect in use and disposal.” Carnegie also favors SCS (Scientific Certification Systems), which conducts a high-level indoor air quality examination.

More options for flaunting a product’s genuine sustainability level are on the horizon. “The trend we’re seeing among the really educated green audience, the ones who are kind of pushing for new standards, is around the area of transparency,” according to Vernon. “They want full product information, they want the ingredient list, they want to understand our research, the environmental impact throughout the whole supply chain. They want it all so they can then take it and figure out what is important to them.”

In the movement toward full disclosure, more and more manufacturers are turning to Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), which centers on guidelines put forth by the International Organization for Standardization. Vernon likens EPD’s evolution to that of nutritional labels on foods.

“Twenty years ago, you couldn’t look up and see what are the grams of fat, what are the grams of protein, what are the ingredients. It’s the same in the voluntary world [of product sustainability]. In cleaning products, we’re already starting to see this shift.” Interface is among the companies planning to make its ingredient list public on its packaging.

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