Originally published in ‘Details‘ magazine, by Schiavello, May 2019

In the 1980s, environmentalist Jay Westerveld penned an essay criticising the hotel industry’s habit of placing placards in bathrooms encouraging guests to re-use their towels in order to save water, when little to no environmental effort was being made by the hotel itself.

In his essay, Westerveld coined the word ‘greenwashing’ – the coordinated effort by companies to spruik environmental claims when, in reality, the company or product is less than environmentally focused. Despite being a favoured method of spin for advertisers even before the ‘80s, greenwashing has reached a new pinnacle in the past decade.

485 La Trobe Street, Melbourne

“Organisations started to see that being ‘green’ or claiming sustainability was a key differentiator they could use to market themselves against competitors,” says Suzie Barnett, previous Executive Director at the Green Building Council of Australia. “It was naivety that was driving it at first, but then in the later years it became deliberate, and that’s where we now have a problem.” Barnett spent eight years at the Green Building Council in the 2000s, where she helped launch the Green Star rating system – Australia’s first environmental rating system. After leaving the company in 2012, she spent 12 months researching the building supply chain. “I delved quite deeply into every supply chain group, whether it was carpet or lighting or plants, and I went in search of organisations that met certain criteria to show that they were authentic in their environmental claims,” she recalls. “And I got a rude awakening because I found that not many companies were actually doing what they said, or implied, they were doing.” The most prevalent method of greenwashing that Barnett observed was the use of imagery implying a sustainable approach – companies using pictures of a pair of hands holding the Earth, or a green tree  frog in the rainforest. Despite appearing green, the companies generally had nothing to back up any kind of sustainable claims. “They were just using the imagery so people were going, ‘Oh, look at that, they must be green’,” Barnett says. Another disingenuous method Barnett noticed companies favour is to achieve an environmental label for a single product and then host the certification label on their homepage. To the uninformed, it would appear that the company’s whole practice is environmentally certified, when in reality, the certification only applies to one product, and unless you do a fact-check, you could easily be duped.

Barnett recommends the way forward is to decide on what is the most important thing to you – is it to reduce impact from an environmental perspective? Or is it health and wellbeing? Understand exactly what you’re looking for and then research how to identify claims surrounding that area. Be informed about what sort of validation is going to ensure you aren’t falling for greenwashing, whether it be a transparency label, or third-party scientific research and evidence that confirms claims. She says to break it down, and you will eventually find a handful of partners who meet those core goals that you’re looking for. The responsibility of pushing sustainability in the built environment lies in the hands of everyone. And if we do keep pushing, there is a brighter, healthier and greener future ahead.

In 2017, The International Living Future Institute launched its Declare label programme in Australia. The labels allow for full transparency and have already experienced success overseas. Just like a nutritional label, the Declare label tells you basically everything you need to know in order to make an informed purchasing decision – but it’s for the materials marketplace. With end-of-life options, ingredients that are colour coded for restrictedness and toxicity, VOC information and an indication of whether the product complies with the Living Building Challenge Red List, the Declare label is the assailant to greenwash.

This level of transparency will leave us with suppliers who do better and buildings that are more restorative in the future, paving way for truly sustainable specification in the built environment. “I liken this situation to how we have evolved with our purchasing of food,” says Barnett. “Think about a decade ago, when you went to the supermarket, you didn’t know what was in anything and you chose things based off how good the packaging was or what you felt like eating. Then things like the Heart Foundation Tick rose up, and food had that label that said, ‘We think this is good for you.’ But now what we have is basically complete transparency. We can now pick up food and see what the ingredients are, what percentage of fat or sugar is in it, and where it came from. “In the built environment, we’re still making decisions based off a tick or a label. Which is a step forward from where we were when we knew nothing, but where I think we are heading is towards complete transparency so we can make informed decisions.” Looking back to the past, we have come a long way in terms of sustainability in architecture and design. But there’s certainly room to do a lot better…

And seeing beyond the greenwash is the first step.

Read the full ‘Details‘ article