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Green That Comes Out in the Wash

By Jessica McNaughton

For the last decade, companies have been clamoring to get their products tagged with some sort of label or declaration that classifies them as “green.” This certificate, sticker, logo or claim would absolve them of any responsibility in explaining why their product was either beneficial to, or less detrimental to the environment, because people would just “know” it was green because some certifying body, or pay-to-play entity said it was so. This is completely maligned with what the intent of green building was at the outset and has completely derailed the green initiative in so many ways.

People hear the word green and the most likely response today is an eye roll or a fatigued, belabored stare that not so kindly encourages you to “go on.”

The term coined for these misrepresented claims is “greenwashing,” and it is basically making a claim that your product is “good” because it met some baseline criteria that may or may not actually apply to your product. For example, someone may make a claim such as, “My granite has no added urea formaldehyde.” Well no, it doesn’t take a detective to know granite never has and never would have formaldehyde added. The anti-formaldehyde movement was meant to address adhesives and other composite materials that could avoid using toxic formaldehyde in lieu of a less dangerous ingredient.

When it comes to environmental benefits of products, whether it is better materials, better adhesives, better sealants, better disposition at end of life, less material for the same purpose or better manufacturing, there is a collection of trade-offs that must be balanced against one another. A single claim of something being “green” bears no weight and has no merit.

Of all of the surfacing materials on the market, there is nothing that does not have a downside. This includes laminate, tile, stone, quartz surfacing, solid surface, wood, recycled glass, cement, metals, sintered surfaces and anything else you can name. It is a matter of whether those downsides outweigh the upsides and what matters the most to your design or project.

Let’s take a look at some of the factors that affect the “green” value of surfacing materials and from an environmental perspective:
Natural Resources — The way some materials are mined or harvested can be devastating to local communities and damaging to the Earth. Also, many natural resources are finite and once used cannot be recovered or take a very long time to recover.

Manufacturing Location — Is the material shipped from across the globe or manufactured/harvested locally? The further a material has to travel to reach its final home in a project, the more carbon emissions are released getting it there.

Harmful Content — Does the material contain harmful substances? This could be emissions that are given off from the finished product that damage indoor air quality, or something dangerous that is only released during the fabrication of the material and is potentially harmful to workers. Also, some products emit harmful substances during the manufacturing or harvesting process.

Performance/Durability — Will the material be damaged easily and have to be replaced often, or will it last a lifetime?

Recycled Content — Materials that are made using recycled materials means waste is being diverted from the landfills and repurposed. Recycled content could range from hardly any to 100 percent, depending on the product.

Recyclability — If a surface can be recycled at the end of its life and made new again, then it is less likely to end up in a landfill itself. If it cannot be recycled, does the material cause potential harm when put in a landfill?

These are some examples of the good, the bad and ugly of the trade-offs of green claims. There is just no perfect product, so the best thing to do is know the facts, flush out the greenwashing claims that are meaningless and help drive the industry toward better materials.
If you are going to look for a label that assures you the product is eco-friendly in relation to others, the holy grail of green certifications is Cradle to Cradle certification, in which the materials and manufacturing practices of a product are assessed in five categories: Material Health, Material Reutilization, Renewable Energy Use, Water Stewardship and Social Responsibility.

Environmental stewardship is not an afterthought any longer; it is a requirement when introducing a product or a product line. And the ecosystem in which new and existing products are trying to survive is smarter, savvier and knows what questions to ask to really vet out the true stewards. There may not be any “perfect product,” but there definitely are some that are at least on a path of continuous improvement and strive for product improvement instead of hiding behind false claims with no merit. Those are the products that rise to the top and find their way to leading architects, designers and builders savvy enough to partner with the brands they know will stand behind their claims.
It is not easy being green, and it all comes out in the wash.

About the Author
Jessica McNaughton is president of CaraGreen (, a distributor of sustainable materials, and co-authored the book Understanding Green Building Materials. She is also a LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP) and an associate member representative on the ISFA Board of Directors. She can be reached at [email protected] or (919) 929-3009.