The Sierra Club has a long history of supporting leadership standards in forest certification and green building. Voluntary, market-based green standards have grown dramatically in prominence and influence. Those with the most integrity and success are changing the marketplace and spurring significant investment in more environmentally sustainable practices. Notable examples include LEED and Living Building Challenge in the building sector and Forest Stewardship Council in the forest sector. The Sierra Club works within these organizations to advocate for improvements. We also defend them by pushing back against attacks and exposing greenwashing on the part of industry groups that want to lower the bar.
About Forest Certification
Credible certification of forestry practices and forest products plays a significant role in conserving and protecting the world’s forests and forest ecosystems. The Sierra Club and most other environmental groups are united in support of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as the highest available standard for forest certification. FSC certified forestry goes farthest in protecting forest biodiversity, ancient old-growth forests, water quality, and the well-being of workers and forest-dependent peoples.
We oppose the industry-governed and financed system called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). The SFI system seeks to pass off environmentally harmful industrial forestry as somehow “sustainable.” Among other things, SFI certifies vast clearcuts, the replacement of complex forest ecosystems with monocultures, aerial spraying of toxic herbicides, and logging that harms water quality and jeopardizes fish and wildlife. SFI’s bogus forest certification scheme and fake eco-label are designed to cover up the environmental harm caused by intensive industrial forestry.
About Green Building Certification
Green buildings have higher levels of environmental performance than do mainstream buildings, usually across a number of dimensions such as energy and water conservation, use of more sustainable, less or non-toxic materials, and improved indoor air quality. Green buildings can vary greatly from being only slightly better than what is required by local building codes to being very “deep green.” Certification to credible green building standards is a way to assure that green building claims are legitimate.
Green buildings have higher levels of environmental performance than do mainstream buildings, usually across a number of dimensions such as energy and water conservation, use of more sustainable, less or non-toxic materials, and improved indoor air quality. Green buildings can vary greatly from being only slightly better than what is required by local building codes to being very “deep green.” Certification to credible green building standards is the best way to assure that green building claims are legitimate.
There are two prominent and credible green building rating systems in the United States:
- LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) sponsored by the US Green Building Council (USGBC)
- Living Building Challenge sponsored by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI)
The Sierra Club and other environmental groups endorse LEED and the Living Building Challenge. We oppose weak rating systems, such as Green Globes, that are sponsored by industry trade groups.
Specifically, we work to promote and defend high standards within the LEED rating system, primarily in two areas: using certified wood and eliminating toxic chemicals from building materials. These are the areas where the timber and chemical industries have tried to undermine the LEED rating system, in part by creating and promoting a competing rating system called Green Globes. The Green Globes rating system allows the timber and chemical industries to continue business-as-usual practices but call it “green” and “sustainable”. We call it greenwashing.
Another way that the timber and chemical industries have been subverting the goals of green building is through the aggressive promotion of approaches to Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that do note address the environmental impacts of logging or the health effects of toxic chemicals.
In the green building arena, the Sierra Club often partners with other environmental groups or advocates, provides research papers, works with green building news organizations, and exposes groups engaged in greenwashing.
- Behind the Curtain: A Closer Look at the Green Globes
Environmental Building News: Published by BuildingGreen, Environmental Building News is widely respected as one of best sources of information about green building and green building materials.
BuildingGreen - Green Product Guidance: Published by BuildingGreen, Green Product Guidance is one of the best resources for identifying and sourcing green and healthy building products and materials.
TreeHugger: For years, TreeHugger’s Lloyd Alter tracked, reported on, and satirized special interest greenwashing of green building. His posts are an entertaining and informative must for anyone interested in these topics.
Heathy Building Network: For more than 15 years, HBN has been leading the charge in tackling toxic chemicals in the built environment, developing innovative programs, providing cutting-edge information, and engaging in advocacy to ensure that green buildings are healthy buildings.
For more than two decades, the mainstream timber industry has been aggressively pursuing the stategic objective of getting wood from status quo industrial forestry accepted as a green building material. The primary delivery system for achieving this goal is the industry's bogus forest certication scheme, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). And recognition of SFI within the US Green Building Council's (USGBC's) LEED green building rating system has long been seen as key to success. This is why, since at least 2003, the timber industry has poured millions of dollars into a multi-pronged pressure campaign all aiming to force USGBC to cave and let SFI in - and why, for just as long, environmental groups and green building leaders have been pushing back.
There have been several major battles in this war, and the Sierra Club Forests & Climate Team has always been on the front lines. The latest round centers on a LEED pilot credit introduced in the spring of 2016 that opens the door to SFI.
Here are several reports that outline the situation and critique this pilot credit:
- Environmental Groups' Critique of Legal Wood Pilot Credit
- A Trojan Horse for Big Timber
- SFI-Certified Illegal Logging
Sierra Club has worked in partnership with several other environmental groups to develop a legitimate alternative that can actually help combat illegal logging: the Timber Traceability Pilot Credit
Leadership standards drive market transformation to sustainability. They achieve this by setting acceptable levels of environmental performance that are sufficiently high to require meaningful improvement over the status quo, and yet are economically feasible, so that adoption is possible.
The Sierra Club considers a standard worthy of the "leadership" designation if it is a genuine change agent in its respective industry and continues to improve with time, driving market transformation to sustainability.
With the making of the market, a growing number of industry participants have an incentive to improve their practices to meet the leadership standard. When enough of them do so, a new status quo can be achieved that is more sustainable than that which preceded it, and then the bar may be raised higher still to drive further market transformation to sustainability.
Special Interest Groups Seek to Co-opt or Undermine Leadership Standards
Special interests that feel threatened by leadership standards have sought to co-opt or undermine them by developing and promoting standards that are “greenwash” and that in fact represent only partial and/or marginal improvements over the status quo. Examples include Green Globes in the building industry and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) in the forest sector. These standards and labels are governed by and ultimately serve the industries that fund them – in the case of Green Globes and SFI, large chemical, plastics and timber companies and their trade associations, including the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the Vinyl Institute and the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA).
The main purpose of greenwash standards is to confuse people and to slow market transformation to sustainability by competing with leadership standards. They employ the lingo of environmental stewardship, but they exist to serve and protect the special interest groups that support them.
Instead of investing in real change, special interest groups and their trade associations invest in marketing and PR. They claim that they are bringing "choice" to the marketplace and are merely seeking “competition” (a "Coke” vs. “Pepsi" comparison), when in fact they are trying to substitute an inferior standard for the genuine article.
ISEAL is a NGO whose mission is to strengthen sustainability standards systems for the benefit of people and the environment. ISEAL’s Credibility Principles were finalized in mid-2013 after a year-long multi-stakeholder consultation on five continents. They are an important articulation of the concepts and actions that underpin credible environmental standards and eco-labels.
EPA's recommendations are intended to help federal purchasers identify and procure environmentally friendly products and will have a major impact on establishing which standards represent true leadership and which do not.
One definition of greenwashing is, "Disinformation disseminated by an organization in order to present an environmentally responsible public image.” Greenwashing comes in many forms. Special interests that feel threatened by environmental progress have sought to co-opt or undermine progress by developing and promoting greenwashing that they pass off as "green", but in fact are distractions or represent only partial and/or marginal improvements over the status quo.
Here are some resources intended to aid in understanding and exposing this nefarious practice, particularly in the context of green building:
This BuildingGreen article is one of the best overviews we have found on greenwashing in the building sector.
Most building products these days have an environmental angle to their sales pitches. Many are legit, but as ever, you still have to watch for the telltale signs of greenwash—the practice of inventing or exaggerating the environmental benefits of a product.
This report chronicles selected milestones in the history of green building and in corporate resistance to the movement that drives it. These events are part of a larger pattern of positive action and negative reaction that is playing out world wide.
Green Globes is an initiative of the chemical, plastics, and conventional timber industries. It is being peddled as a cheaper and easier alternative to the better-known LEED green-building rating system, and claims to deliver the same environmental results. But, if you really want to understand Green Globes, you need to know who’s behind it.
The industry playbook for using greenwash standards to subvert leadership standards.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) is the science of measuring certain environmental impacts of a given product throughout its lifespan, from extraction through manufacturing, transportation, installation, use, maintenance and disposal or recycling. When a company or organization does an LCA for a specific product, they often report the results of their study in a document called an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD).
LCA and EPDs are touted as flexible, comprehensive, objective sustainability assessment and reporting tools, and indeed they have their merits. Among their strengths is that they deal with things that are more or less precisely measureable; thus intuition and individual bias are largely eliminated.
But the strengths of LCA – that it is flexible and that it focuses on what is measurable – are also the sources of its weaknesses and limitations. Results produced by LCA are only as good as underlying data and methods for calculating impacts; even critical impacts will not be addressed if complete and accurate data isn’t available or if methodologies for translating data into impacts don’t exist.
Also, because of its flexibility, it is possible to design an LCA study to focus on certain impacts and ignore others, and thus gloss over a product’s worst aspects. In order to address this issue, the international standards on EPDs require the development of Product Category Rules (PCRs) that provide detailed instructions as to how LCA studies for a given product must be done so that an analysis of that product will yield the same results no matter who does it. PCRs also set rules for what impacts must be disclosed in EPDs and how.
It is often stated or implied that LCA and EPDs are comprehensive in their consideration and disclosure of impacts – that they cover everything from soup to nuts. Yet, when pressed, experts admit that most LCAs, EPDs and PCRs do not address any of a number of significant impacts, including site-specific ecological damage, the human health impacts of toxic chemicals, and social issues to name a few. In some cases, LCA and EPDs have even been gamed by industries that benefit from LCAs blind spots, in effect disguising some the most critical negative impacts of their products in the name of transparency - an example of greenwashing.
There is a great deal of confusion and misinformation related to using LCA techniques to create EPDs for wood products. This Sierra Club piece provides a summary of how the timber industry is using LCA and EPDs to disguise the damage caused by industrial logging.
In 2017, the North American Environmental Paper Network and SCS Global Services finalized PCRs for roundwood and pulp/paper that cover a comprehensive set of environmental and health impact categories – far more comprehensive than the wood PCR supported by the timber industry.
The use and presence of toxic chemicals in building materials, and as a by-product of the production and disposal of materials, has been a subject of growing concern in the environmental and green building movements. Green chemistry is a discipline devoted to the development and use of safe alternatives to toxic chemicals.
Here are some resources on this topic:
For more than 15 years, HBN has been leading the charge in tackling toxic chemicals in the built environment, developing innovative programs, providing cutting-edge information, and engaging in advocacy to ensure that green buildings are healthy buildings.
The Health Product Declaration Collaborative is a community of designers, manufacturers, and sustainability experts who promote the widespread adoption of standardized disclosures (called Health Product Declarations or HPDs) for chemicals of concern in building products and materials in order to advance green chemistry and healthier buildings.
Pharos is a project of the Healthy Building Network. It is a tremendous resource for those interested in healthy products and ‘chemicals of concern.’ Here you will find in-depth information and research, an innovative approach to disclosing environmental, health and social equity impacts related to products and materials, and a searchable product database — among other resources.
Green Chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the generation of hazardous substances. EPA’s efforts to speed the adoption of this revolutionary and diverse discipline have lead to significant environmental benefits, innovation and a strengthened economy.
The Green Science Policy Institute provides unbiased data to government, industry, NGOs, and consumers. They inform decision making about chemicals. One of their latest campaigns is to eliminate toxic flame retardants from building insulation and consumer products.
The Sierra Club Toxics Committee works to reduce exposure to hazardous substances in order to protect families and wildlife and to improve our water quality and neighborhoods.