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Separating True Sustainability from Green Washing

Chris d Craiker AIA

This last month I renewed my architectural license for the 40th time as an architect for four decades. Typically, we pay our fee and move on, however for the last six or seven years, the State has been requiring continuing education to keep up with the latest laws. Initially, we were required to take an exam on American with Disability Act, ADA, but now the State requires architects to take an exam about sustainability with the assumption that California will eventually go all electric with renewable energy.

What I find interesting is that the targets are always moving and new definitions of sustainability and renewable energy are evolving every day. I once noted that California embraced all electric appliances in the 50s and 60s, then in the 70s and 80s the State became the biggest user of natural gas. Now, the State wants to make households and industries all electric when the process is still elusive. I'm a big believer in keeping diversified and flexible and not eliminate any energy source but instead learn to control them.

Sustainability is a very big and loose subject. A simplified definition is, “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. Simply put, making changes to our habits to help save our planet. The three fundamental pillars are social, economic and environmental needs. This encompasses everything from energy consumption to poverty reduction.

Unfortunately, it's easy to mislead and claim sustainability through aggressive marketing. This is often known as “Green Washing”. Green washing confuses consumers and users alike. Here’s an easy example: The word “Natural” is everywhere but the word is meaningless and is usually used to hide its true nature. My partner always says, “Don’t buy it if it has more than four ingredients and the first ones are salt or sugar”.

I discussed this with Madeline Reeves, a sustainability champion who had some good points to keep our eyes out for green washing. I call it “Fake Sustainability”:

  1. Fake credentials. Look for real certificates or evidence of true sustainability. They should be on the product label. Their website and their packaging should be clear and have genuine professional reports from known sources such as Global Reporting Initiative, GRI, or another real platform.

  2. Fake language. Lookout for vague and fluffy words without authenticity. Keep away from words like “natural”, “non-toxic” or even “recyclable” if they don’t explain how. Always look for what chemicals are being used or omitted.

  3. Fake “green” colors or vegetative imagery. You would think that using the color green would help implant confidence in the product, but they often are used to hide shortcomings of the product. Be suspicious of the use of florals, leaves, green plants, are fields and orchards often used to hide the products real content.

  4. Fake hidden tradeoffs. Often companies make big announcements of sustainable changes which don't meet the smell test. Madeline reminded me that Starbucks made a big deal out of eliminating plastic straws in favor of plastic straw less lids, which obviously require more plastic. Sometimes so-called changes are only alternate ways of selling the same old stuff.

  5. Fake carbon offsets. Corporations like to say they're putting money towards environmental projects to balance their oversized carbon footprints. All too often this offsetting does not eliminate or reduce greenhouse gases when they're simply finding another way to rationalize it. In my opinion, this is among the most dangerous of all practices. Look for true discussions about their sustainability on their websites, not just fake carbon offsets.

The world of sustainability is huge and there are a million ways that we can all contribute. We all have the ability to apply our lives, work, relationships and beliefs to making a better world. No one solution fits all. Go ahead and focus on activities that help build your own sense of confidence in products you use and the people you want to help.

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB past his exam with flying colors

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