Professionals must cut through the ‘greenwash’

Leaf through technical or business magazines, or indeed many national newspapers, and you will soon find yourself wading knee-deep in ‘greenwash’.

The term describes the increasingly widespread practice by companies of putting a positive spin on their products as environmentally friendly, in the attempt to convince customers to buy them.

For example, what familiar product do you think this describes? ‘An energy-saving, ergonomically-designed and recyclable resource-lite solution for joining disparate materials used in organic paper-based data retrieval systems’. It is in fact a paper clip, drowning in a sea of ‘greenwash’. The same approach is increasingly being applied to products used in the building services industry, often with extremely misleading results.

This should perhaps not come as a surprise. Building services products consume significant amounts of energy; are often based on pressurised systems with volatile, potentially harmful fluids, sometimes with a global warming potential; and they are made from steel, copper and plastic in a world where these raw materials are in limited supply.

The impact we have on the environment matters, however, and is a cause for genuine concern. We will be judged harshly by future generations if we do not take our stewardship of the planet seriously. For this reason, all professionals in the sector have a responsibility to cut through ‘greenwash’ whenever they meet it.

Those of us who have marketing responsibilities can exercise this directly. Those who purchase or specify products can challenge doubtful ‘green’ claims. Close to home, Wolseley has invested heavily in both its Sustainable Building Center and Modular Engineering facilities. In both, genuine environmentally sustainable solutions are in use and on display, and customers are encouraged to visit to see for themselves.

To forewarn readers, and help them spot it, here is a summary of the six main types of ‘greenwash’ in use:

The hidden trade-off: Certain energy efficient systems may have a reduced working life or require more frequent or expensive maintenance. Make sure that a product’s headline does not mask other, less attractive features that will cost more in the long run.

The absence of proof: The word ‘organic’ is littered liberally across supermarket shelves. However, without certification and definition, it is wise to be sceptical. Likewise with building services products that claim to be simply environmentally friendly, without further essential qualification. Ask yourself – in what way is the product beneficial to the environment? In what ways does it avoid harm?

Vagueness: Products may be claimed to be ‘natural’, giving a halo of goodness and acceptability, when in fact they may be – or may contain – substances that are harmful or even hazardous.  Arsenic is a natural substance, but it also happens to be extremely dangerous. Be on your guard when the word ‘natural’ pops up.

Irrelevance:  An example is products claiming to be ‘CFC-free’, even though CFCs were banned 20 years ago. This claim is disappearing from our industry, but can still be seen on aerosols on chemists’ shelves.

Misleading endorsements: Products may falsely claim to be certified by an internationally recognised environmental standard, such as Energy Star or Green Seal, or be part of the UK government’s approved energy technology list. If in doubt, check.

The lesser of two evils: Organic cigarettes may sound better for you, but they are just as harmful. Be wise before rather than after the event.

Now, suitably forewarned and forearmed, building services professionals can go out and slay a ‘greenwash’ dragon today!

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