Green Product Manufacturers: Whom to Trust?

May 15, 2003 · by Al Kabus

“Green buildings are just good design, and should be simply what we do. Green buildings need green products. But every manufacturer out there has a different story, so who are you going to trust?”

“Green buildings are just good design, and should be simply what we do. Green buildings need green products. But every manufacturer out there has a different story, so who are you going to trust?”

That was the response I got when I asked one senior architect what he thought about sustainability. The thing that struck me the most about his statement was how the various and competing claims of different manufacturers had resulted in such mistrust. In fact, the vast majority of companies out in the marketplace are being truthful about their claims. They just don’t have a commonly accepted standard— yet—for what constitutes “green” against which they can measure themselves.

The whole of the commercial buildings and interiors community has grown significantly in its recognition and understanding of the importance of creating environmentally sustainable products and structures. The path is being blazed by thinkers and innovators in all sectors of our industry: architecture and design, manufacturing, and distribution. But it is not an easy one to follow. Looking just at the question of product choice, expert knowledge and time is necessary not only to be able to determine which materials are the most environmentally sound for a given application, but also to know how one begins to undertake that assessment. There are a myriad of issues to consider: what raw materials comprise this product, by what processes was it fabricated; what will happen to it at the end of its useful life? And those are just scratching the surface.

Many of the most respected companies in America are rising to the challenge. The promise of cost savings is driving a move toward more environmentally preferable production processes and material choices. Financial rewards are being recognized by way of waste reduction, which translates directly into higher operating income. Improvements in energy efficiency also result in higher profitability.

The market’s growing demand for environmentally preferable finished goods drives product innovation. But there is tremendous diversity in how manufacturers are approaching this challenge. Different kinds of materials, like carpet vs. upholstery textiles, demand different approaches. Moreover, variations in the individual production processes among manufacturers of the same kinds of material might drive additional diversity in the innovation required to make the end product “greener.”

For example, how do you compare a product made entirely of recycled material against a product made through a highly efficient manufacturing process that yields minimal waste, maximizes energy efficiency and can be recycled at the end of its useful life?

The diversity in how greener products are being brought to market has resulted in equally diverse marketing efforts. Manufacturers have spent tremendous amounts of money on advertising and sales materials to broadcast their environmental messages. Unfortunately, the wonderful diversity in innovation resembles chaos when you’re trying to assess one company’s story against another to make an informed product choice. Everyone—consumer and manufacture—suffers from the confusion and lack of trust that result.

Clear, commonly accepted standards for what makes a product “green” are the solution. Such standards would enable manufacturers to deliver their product messages effectively, and would allow designers and purchasers to easily evaluate claims to make informed product choices.

Many forums for sharing and disseminating information exist today, including the U.S. Green Buildings Council and LEED, professional organizations, research foundations, interest groups, and a multitude of other organizations. Instead of focusing all of their resources on telling their own individual environmental stories, manufacturers from all industry sectors need to get involved in these groups by sharing their expert knowledge to help the marketplace chart a path forward.

The risk of not making a positive contribution to the creation of meaningful standards is significant. Strong market demand is driving the move towards greener products. Standards will emerge, and it’s in the interest of every manufacturer to be a part of the dialogue. No one knows more about a product than the people who make it. Manufacturer participation will help assure that emerging standards are reasonable and reflect what are truly meaningful measurements for the particular products they produce.

By working together cooperatively to create consensus-based standards for what is green, manufacturers will not only build a sound platform for future competition, they will become key contributors in accelerating the industry’s progress towards a more sustainable future.
Al Kabus
ASK Strategies
Atlanta, Ga.

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