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Energy Solutions

Green Building Priority #8 — Use Green Products

Number-eight in my list of the top-10 green building priorities is to use "green" or low-environmental-impact products and materials

GreenSpec is BuildingGreen's product database — available online at
Image Credit: BuildingGreen, LLC

Those who are new to green building may be surprised that material selection isn’t right at the top of my priority list. Many people assume that what makes a home green are things like the use of recycled-content or bio-based materials — decking made out of recycled milk jugs or foam insulation made from soybean oil, for example.

Selecting green materials is important, and our company focuses a lot of attention on providing guidance for product selection (especially through our GreenSpec Directory) but, in my opinion, material selection is well down the list of the most important green building priorities — sitting at #8. (Over the coming weeks, you’ll learn about the green building strategies that I consider to be higher priority.)What should we look for in green building products?

In our GreenSpec Directory, we have 26 different attributes that we use to define products as green. These are organized into five major categories:

  • Products made with salvaged, recycled, or agricultural waste content;
  • Products that conserve natural resources;
  • Products that avoid toxic or other emissions;
  • Products that save energy or water; and
  • Products that contribute to a safe, healthy built environment.

Our full list of these green attributes can be found in our article Building Materials: What Makes a Product Green?, available on our website.

In GreenSpec, we employ a “life-cycle thinking” process in our product reviews. It’s not as robust as full “life-cycle assessment,” and we don’t have the budget to do actual product testing. But we synthesize information about products that we get from manufacturers, we dig into government and academic reports on chemical toxicity and product performance attributes, and we filter that through a common-sense perspective that we’ve developed over 20-plus years of looking at green building products.

One of the challenges in identifying green building products is separating claims from reality. “Greenwashing” is rampant in the building products industry, with many manufacturers exaggerating claims about the environmental performance of their products and some providing blatant misinformation.

“Third-party certification” provides a way to assess products and materials more objectively. We can be fairly confident that wood products carrying Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification come from well-managed forests, for example.

Many industries have green certification programs. The carpet industry created Green Label and Green Label Plus for carpeting with low emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Energy Star is a certification program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for recognizing appliances, lighting, office equipment, and other products that operate efficiently — aiming for the top 25% of products on the market. Similarly, EPA recently created the WaterSense Program for water-conserving toilets, showerheads, faucets, and other plumbing fixtures.

One of the challenges for architects and builders specifying products is the proliferation of labels that are used to identify green products. There are dozens of different certification systems and corresponding labels. Some refer to this as the “NASCAR effect,” with products carrying as many distinctive labels as racing cars. Designers, builders, and consumers are often left confused — especially because some certification systems are more rigorous than others.

To further confuse matters, some certifications are for single attributes (forest management, energy efficiency, or VOC emissions, for example), while others are more comprehensive — covering multiple attributes. EcoLogo is a multi-attribute certification system developed in Canada; this certification system was just acquired by Underwriters Laboratory (UL) to become part of the UL-Environment system (this may be the start of consolidation that is likely to occur in green certifications).

Product certification and green product selection can get pretty complicated. Our company works hard to understand all of the relevant product certifications, and we use that information in selecting products to list in our GreenSpec directory. Our goal is to make process of product selection easier. We want architects and builders to have more time to focus on design issues that are usually a lot more important.

Posted from San Francisco, where I am speaking at the West Coast Green conference this week.

In addition to this Energy Solutions blog, Alex writes the weekly blog on Alex’s Cool Product of the Week, which profiles an interesting new green building product each week. You can sign up to receive notices of those blogs by e-mail — enter your e-mail address in the upper right corner of any blog page.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, LLC and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


  1. J Chesnut | | #1

    from product to commerce
    The discussion around material resource usage needs to get more sophisticated. The capital (Money) of the building sector in effect sustains certain types of material sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, and disposal practices – in other words our building practices sustain a certain character of commerce and it is at the scale of commerce that environmental impacts are meaningful. Our focus should be on this scale.

    When our efforts are primarily at the scale of selecting among comparable products we loose sight of the real impacts on the environment. Capital going into concrete construction supports a sector of the economy and creates a certain kind of world – think of the image of the concrete manufacturing plant and the excavation sites. Capital going to the paint industry supports and proliferates a sector of the economy and creates a certain type of physical infrastructure that has associated broader impacts on the environment. At this scale selecting between paint options or different mixes of concrete is of small consequence.

    If we don’t have a larger vision of a world we want to create or at least endorse with our money transactions the impact of selecting between products available on the market will have either negligible overall impact or contribute to a market transformation so slow that any intentions like reducing the impacts of climate change or saving more species from extinction will not be accomplished.

    As the concept ‘green products’ gains some traction larger industries pick up on this and offer a green product among their existing selection to gain back market share by underpricing more conscientious smaller operations that represent the real change we need to see happening. At the same time the larger industries can continue to manufacture products that epitomize why we are faced with a degraded global environment in the first place. Do I know all the facts of what I am talking about? Not really but this is where my concerns are and I would appreciate others discussing these issues in addition to energy efficiency and safe wall assemblies which are really the low hanging fruit of trying to reduce the impacts of the actions we take to create our own capital wealth.

  2. Norman Zboray, Green with Envy Home Store, Somerset, NJ | | #2

    Product Selection
    We face many issues with product selection everyday at our business. The source of our products and the environmental impact has actually become less of an issue to many of our clients as the marketplace and the economy has changed in the last few years. Greenwashing has confused many of our clients and quite frankly, this has created a huge burden to our business. For example, one manufacturer makes one "green" product and their website praises the environmental stewardship of the company. This company is one of the largest polluters in New Jersey. Likewise, one of our regional lumber distributors has become an FSC certified warehouse but no one actually has ever ordered FSC wood and the employees do not even know the definition of FSC!! Many of these issues also come down to the actual costs of the product. Will clients continue to pay more for products from companies that actually practice what they preach? GBA focuses on many important issues especially the often debated insulation and building envelope debate. However, the most important issue facing our industry and the survival of my company is how clients will choose building and home products in the future.

  3. Steve Dearlove LEED AP | | #3

    Global Government Intervention
    Excellent topic.

    In the "creating architecture" business my challenge is to provide that "product" i.e. the building, in the shortest time possible, and normally at the lowest cost to the owner. I have to rely on the information provided by manufacturers along with my own common sense, coupled with whatever information I've been able to gather along the way.

    So when I am considering the products I specify for a 150,000 square foot building, the reality is that the ecological footprint of that building is collosal: and it is something I have limited skills to quantify, nor time to research.

    Even by using "green" products, it is virtually impossible to create a 150,000 square foot building without doing significant damage to the environment. The resources required for the components along with their manufacture, delivery, installation and long term service life are huge.

    My take on this is that the only way manufacturers are going to abandon their environmentally degrading practices is not by consumer demand alone, because despite the higher profile of 'the environment" these days, the pocketbook inevitably rules, as Norman Zboray above points out.

    Therefore, there can only be true transformation of the market through strict mandatory, government-initiated requirements, which needs to include a suite of tax incentives, subsidies, regulations as well as harsh restrictions on polluting processes: in other words, a multi-pronged approach. But this needs to happen on a worldwide basis. Nothing short of this will be successful, being that so many of our building components are manufactured off-shore, alowing businesses to simply provide their product from a more lax regulatory environment.

    Without this kind of unified approach, (it IS a global problem after all) we will continue to be green-washed by industry that has no other motive than profits. The ones who want to do the right thing will remain to be the insignificant players, and therefore their impact on the environment will be as well.

  4. Norman Zboray, Green with Envy Home Store, Somerset, NJ | | #4

    Great example of the new Green marketplace
    We just received a phone call from a company attending Greenbuild about stocking products in our warehouse. I asked what makes the product "Green"? "You make a lot of green when you sell it". The scary part is that we have all probably heard this response. Too bad that they did not call before my initial post.

  5. Maria JK Hars | | #5

    Green products
    As we know there is a lot of "Green-washing" going on and it's very confusing to all. The labels, Energy Efficient, Green, Eco-Friendly, Sustainable have different meanings to different people. GREEN GREED should be the new label to follow. Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon because of the mult-billion dollar industry.

    Our Federal government allowed Lead to be in our paint and our gas until 1978 +-, UFFI in our insulation, Arsenic in our pressure treated lumber banned in the last few years. Lead is still used -(China who owns us-thanks in part to our GREED for cheap stuff-still uses these toxic materials & we are still buying them)! Shame on us!

    The bottom line - When we use toxic materials, we put the health of our inhabitants and the environment at risk. What do you think all those smells from new homes, new cars, ect are- & what are they doing to your body? Death comes to us all, but do we really want to speed it up?

    The U.S. spends billions of dollars per year on health care and the health industry. I believe there is a correlation between poor air quality (inside or outside) & our health. Studies from the Cancer institute, EPA and others show this fact.

    I for one would rather spec non toxic materials that have been around and used for 100"s - 1000's of years., use passive solar design, and buy local. Wow! What a concept! Does anybody want to join?

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Sure, I'll join
    I'm perfectly willing to join a bandwagon in favor of homes that don't undermine our health.

    However, don't confuse "natural" -- or something that's "been around and used for thousands of years" -- with "healthy."

    Two of the biggest public health threats facing the world today are lung problems arising from cooking fires -- indoor wood cooking fires in Third World countries -- and arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh, where arsenic is a naturally occurring component of ground water.

    These problems have been around for thousands of years -- but they're still toxic.

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