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Green or greenwash?

Sandy Patience of GreenSpec.co.uk, discusses how to identify green products among all the greenwash
WHAT IS Greenwash? According to the Oxford Dictionary Greenwash is: 'disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image'. So it seems Greenwash is the dark art of marketing in such a way that misleads the consumer into believing that a product has positive environmental attributes.

Since the introduction of the first Part L of the Building Regulations in 1995 the HVAC industry has been working hard to improve its energy efficiency to meet and surpass the legislation while meeting the growing demand for environmental products. However, while some manufacturers have been driven to develop products that minimise their environmental impact at the other end of the spectrum there are others that have jumped on the 'Greenwash' bandwagon recognising a valuable marketing tool.

The trick for m&e contractors and consultants is trying to distinguish the truly environmental products from the greenwash. Confusingly all manufacturers, bar those who think sustainability is a passing fad, are marketing similar claims, not all of which are true. DEFRA provides manufacturers with detailed advice for making environmental claims but it is guidance only, with little bite. Specification is challenging enough without having to establish the veracity of an environmental performance claim. With that in mind here are some of the more common tricks of greenwash to help sort the truth from the fiction.

All in a name...
Employing the prefixes 'eco' and 'enviro' can make a non-green product hard to distinguish from those with verifiably green credentials - which is the point of the exercise. It can be a sign of a marketing campaign that is rushing to catch-up with the bandwagon. Often in desperation and without justification, an ordinary product, perhaps having been in production for many years, gets 'eco' slapped in front of its name.

Check if there is anything else apparent about the presentation of the product that can back up the claim. If not, talk to a salesman and prepare to be entertained.

Green by association
A product has no real green attributes... cue product literature and trade stand laden with aspirational images - trees, flowers, blue skies, happy people etc. This is frustrating for those looking for something meaningful. That's as far as it goes and there are no environmental claims forthcoming. Check with the manufacturer why their product is associated with environmental imagery and issues.

Unsubstantiated claims
A manufacturer makes an environmental claim because they want us to believe that their product is energy efficient / non-toxic / recycled / recyclable / uses low embodied energy / uses materials from sustainable / renewable sources, is manufactured using non-polluting, waste-free processes and is operated by a happy and healthy workforce - but just can't back it up with evidence.

Check claims and evidence
This is where a manufacturer will concentrate attention on one aspect of environmental impact where they excel, whilst diverting attention from less desirable qualities. For example, a highly efficient centralised mechanical ventilation with heat recovery system may have a high level of heat recovery, however, if it lacks a summer bypass efficiency will be lost when temperatures rise since air conditioning requirements will rise.

Take a good look at what constitutes the product or material.

The vague claim
This is already well-known in the world of consumer products where empathetic emotionally charged words are used that lack specific meaning for example probiotic yogurt; natural materials; non-toxic.

Ask the manufacturer what they mean by the statement, then look out for more of the same as they try to explain.

Another unhelpful claim is that an ISO 14025 EPD is a green certificate which it isn't. But it does provide you with a list of contents and their environmental impacts structured around LCAs. EPDs are the way to go. But remember they can be written both for the cleanest carbon-negative insulation material as well as a lining board made from nuclear waste - Environmental Product Declarations are factual and non-judgemental.

The rubbish label
Only a minority of products available in the UK actually carry any kind of environmental certification. But with the proliferation of ecolabels in recent years, the discerning specifier will be forgiven for not recognising them all.

All the best labels are operated by third-parties. The pan-European 'Blue Angel' label, for example, is operated by a completely independent group which prides itself in having a 'jury' which regularly changes its personnel to prevent the possibility of any conflicts of interest. There are some labels though that are run by trade bodies and there are even labels that are the sole preserve of the individual manufacture.

In the UK third party labels are very limited and easy to recognise. If anything looks unusual, ask about it - the label might be a national or international standard or it might be rubbish.

The misleading claim
This is one of the most pervasive greenwash claims. Devoid of any real green features, the manufacturer will make the best of what's available. This most often takes the form of claiming that the material is recyclable where it has already been common practice in that industry sector. Manufacturers of steel baths will claim their product is 100 per cent recyclable whereas vehicle manufacturers almost never claim the same, even though cars are routinely recycled. Most aluminium is recycled too - although it's long been done for economic reasons, not environmental.

Also misleading is the claim where a material can be recycled when in reality, although it can be theoretically recycled, it almost never is.

Standards too, as is their purpose, change industry. For example, in the domestic h&v sector condensing boilers used to be few and far between and were an exemplum of efficiency going the extra mile. However, amendments to Part L drove the uptake of condensing boilers so that they are the technology norm. Condensing boilers have therefore become routine practice rather than a distinguishable feature in domestic h&v sector. To stand out from the crowd in the domestic heating market other green features are required to lead the pack.

Ask the manufacturer what the big deal is all about.

The token green product
One token green product is presented to the market to demonstrate a company's green credentials. The product may have exceptional environmental aspects, but the company behind it continues to produce a much larger and undistinguished output.

Checking data
Where data is involved, check where it has come from and who (if anyone) has verified it. If a label / certificate looks suspicious, ask to see the certification papers issued by the licensing body.

If in doubt about what you see or read, ask the manufacturer!

// The author is an architect and editor at Greenspec.co.uk //
13 February 2014

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