Volume 47, Issue 2 - March 2008

Truly Green
How to Avoid Green Washing
by Roger Rutan, vice president of Timber Products Co., a producer of environmentally-friendly hardwood plywood panels.

A famous TV personality once said, “It’s not easy being green.” While Kermit the Frog was actually referring to his lot in life, he could just as well have been talking about the whole green movement that is sweeping the construction and woodworking industries in America. Pick up any newspaper, watch any newscast or read any magazine and you will find mention of something “green.” But learning about and being truly green, or sustainable, is not easy. It starts with the huge array of green building programs that are rapidly growing in popularity, each with their own take on what it means to be environmentally friendly. 

Just being able to sort out the alphabet soup of names is a challenge—LEED, GBI, KCMA ESP, EPP—to name a few. Caught in the middle of this whirlwind of market demand is you, the building materials distributor. On one hand you are the recipient of marketing materials from suppliers, all of whom claim to be the greenest with their particular products. On the other hand are your customers, who want to integrate environmentally responsible products into their building project or industrial manufacturing operation, such as kitchen cabinets. 

Fortunately, there are ways to sort this all out to assure that your involvement in green projects conforms to sustainable building program standards, is represented accurately to customers and what is claimed to be green truly is just that. 

The following four steps will help you avoid what is known as “green washing.” Green washing refers to untrue, overstated and unsubstantiated claims about the sustainable attributes of any product. 

Understand the Green Building World
According to a recent study by McGraw-Hill Research, 10 percent of building starts in 2010 are expected to be green, equating to $60 billion. A big percentage of that will flow through the building materials distribution network. Yes, it will take time to learn about the various green programs that pertain to the many sectors of this industry, but hopefully that figure is evidence enough to encourage distributors to understand that it will be time well spent and an important investment. 

In fact, the case could be made that distributors who do not get involved in the green movement will become irrelevant at some point in the future marketplace where green will have become a commodity.

There are four key areas on which you need to focus your educational effort:

The programs in each of these sectors are very clear on how green is defined. Understanding these criteria is your first step to avoid being green washed. All of these programs have websites from which you can order the documentation that states their green standards. 

Demand Independent Certification
Green product claims can come in many forms and in many levels of detail. What distributors need is an easy way to cut through any possible misinformation and outright lies about a product being green. 

Independent certification means that a third party has been used to verify the green claim being made. For example, our company manages its forestlands under the strict standards of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). How do you know we do? We hire PricewaterhouseCoopers to do an on-site audit every year. We have an actual certificate, signed by this firm, that we have complied fully with the SFI standards. Independent certification is the easiest and most reliable way to assure that a product is what it claims to be.

However, it is not always possible or practical. Self-certification is when a firm does any testing or auditing internally and uses the company’s own resources.

Self-certified green claims put more onuses on the distributor. It is reasonable for a distributor to require self-certified suppliers to provide company documentation that shows the certification process and the specific results. One common example of self-certification that is accepted readily is Material Safety and Data Sheets (MSDS). We post MSDS sheets for every major product line on its website, published on letterhead. This documentation is used by distributor customers often to verify the type of resin used in making plywood. This claim is backed by the reputation of the company.

Use Domestically-Produced Materials
“Made in China” has taken on a whole new meaning in America. From toys to tires, we have heard much about defective imported products. Certified wood claims made for imported products should be thoroughly investigated and distributors should require documentation. 

It is well-known that 30 to 50 percent of Chinese birch plywood is made from “suspicious” materials, mainly stolen or illegally harvested logs. How do you really know that the Brazilian cherry flooring you sell is truly green? Forestland management and mill guidelines vary by country, and even regions of a country. The one international standard for both is the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC. The FSC program requires third-party certification. Unfortunately, given its strict standards, there is not a large volume of FSC wood imported into the United States. If you are presented with imported FSC material, insist on seeing the documentation. Chinese mills are known to have fraudulently used the FSC label. 

If you are using imported wood, your task in determining if it is truly green is more involved. However, the solution is simple: use products that were sourced and manufactured in North America. Doing so means no cultural barriers, no gaps in information, and no guessing.

Develop Your Green Strategy
As our industry comes to grips with the huge opportunity and challenge presented by the green movement, it is easy to get overwhelmed. There are so many programs, so many requirements, and so much to learn. In this environment, one can see why green washing has been so common – it’s fertile ground to capitalize on in the short term. 

To avoid the green washing trap and take full advantage of what the green world presents to America’s distributors, each company should step back, take a deep breath and develop its own green strategy. I recommend starting small and taking on just one green initiative to start with. Learn about it, perfect it and then and only then move on to more. If you are in too much of a rush and try to get involved with too many green programs at once, you are ripe fodder for being green washed. 


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