Searching for Greenwash at Greenbuild

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I’ll admit to entering the halls of Greenbuild — the mammoth green building conference and expo, held last week in Phoenix — with a cynical theory: Greenbuild would be filled with greenwash. I assumed that with nearly 1,100 exhibitors, up 25% from the previous year amid a horrid economy, the U.S. Green Building Council, the event’s organizers, had lowered its standards, accepting anyone that had a green story to tell.

It would be, I surmised, a case study in what happens when green goes mainstream: that good intentions and high standards give way to the lowest common denominator of the mass market. We’d seen it before with organic foods, where just about any fat-laden, additive-intensive food could be deemed "organic." I assumed history would repeat itself here.

I’m happy to report that I was wrong.

Greenbuild was by no means a hype-free zone, but as I walked the miles of aisles, looking for examples that would prove my theory, I was profoundly disappointed — and duly impressed. Green building has matured from the exception to the rule, with the market rising to the occasion, producing an increasingly gushing pipeline of products and services that, increasingly, are reducing the environmental toll of the built environment.

As my colleague Rob Watson — executive editor of and one of the founders of the green building movement, in particular, the LEED green building rating system — found in the recent Green Building Market & Impact Report, the potential to reduce those impacts is enormous. LEED in 2009 is estimated to grow by over 40% compared to 2008, for a cumulative total of over 7 billion square feet worldwide since the standard was launched in 2000. The free report details the energy, water, land, and employee commuting savings of LEED.

Given this success, it’s no surprise that everyone is rushing into the green-building market. And with green building’s rise has come a new wave of big companies. It’s all reminiscent of the world of energy, where, as I noted more than three years ago, just about every big company seems to now be in the energy business.

So, too, with buildings. The expo floor at Greenbuild has become populated with billion-dollar companies. Many of these you’d expect to see — large construction companies (DPR, Turner), building automation and controls manufacturers (Honeywell, Johnson Controls), office furniture makers (Herman Miller, Steelcase), architecture firms (Gensler, HOK), flooring manufacturers (Interface, Shaw), and others. But there were some unexpected ones, too.

Firestone, for example. What was the venerable tire company (since 1988 owned by the Japanese conglomerate Bridgestone) doing at a green building show? Seems that the company has migrated from roadways to rooftops, and nearly everywhere in between. It offers an "Enviroready Roofing System," a rubber membrane married to a layer of insulation and other materials, that can accommodate everything from solar panels to vegetable gardens (both of which Firestone also sells). The company also offers permeable asphalt, zero-discharge stormwater collection systems that minimize toxic runoff into sewers and streams, and a range of metal products, from wall panels to sunscreens.

There were others. BASF, the chemical giant, offered a similarly bewildering array of environmental construction solutions — adhesives, solar panels, wall coatings, waterproofing, concrete, insulation, sealants, gypsum board, even termite control — each with its own green story.

(Therein lies one of green building’s dirty secrets: To make buildings resource-efficient and less-polluting requires a host of not-always-friendly chemicals and materials, which is why BASF was joined by Dow, Dupont, and other old-line chemical companies at Greenbuild. As always, there are trade-offs: Constructing energy-efficient buildings requires using more synthetic materials derived from oil.)

There were a few pleasant surprises. Like Sanyo, offering a "synergetic hybrid bicycle," a two-wheeler that seemed to borrow the best of the Prius, featuring regenerative braking and seamless transition between electric drive and manual pedaling modes.

And there was more than a little hype — for example, the aforementioned Sanyo ("Think GAIA"), Steel ("The New Green"), Cold Spring Granite ("Releasing Rock’s Full Potential"), and Armstrong, the flooring company, with a "Greenstock" hippie theme, including tie-dyed t-shirts and a VW bus. (What were they smoking?) There were green nails, green asphalt, green plumbing, green ceilings, green floors, and — for good measure — green artificial turf.

But I’ll overlook a little irrational corporate exuberance in favor of the greater, greener good.

There’s good reason for this exuberance: Green building is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal building market. Consider Turner Construction, one of the world’s largest construction companies, with $10 billion or so in annual revenue. This year, fully half of its projects will be built to LEED standards, a 20% growth from 2009 — a year when the company’s overall revenue dropped. Put another way, green is propping up the building market.

Which is to say: Green building is no longer mere marketing hype — it’s become nothing less than the status quo.

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