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Greenwashing Is Alive and Well in the New Homes Market

Earth Day Greenwashing Environmentally Friendly Sustainable

earth day greenwashing environmentally friendly sustainableI think I first heard the term greenwashing in 1990, as I was getting ready for the big 20th anniversary Earth Day event in Tarpon Springs, Florida. ‘Green’ was starting to get some traction as a marketing term meaning ‘environmentally-friendly’ or ‘sustainable,’ and a lot of companies started jumping on the bandwagon, no matter where they fell in the sustainability spectrum.

I think I first heard the term greenwashing in 1990, as I was getting ready for the big 20th anniversary Earth Day event in Tarpon Springs, Florida. ‘Green’ was starting to get some traction as a marketing term meaning ‘environmentally-friendly’ or ‘sustainable,’ and a lot of companies started jumping on the bandwagon, no matter where they fell in the sustainability spectrum.

In the past few years, the trend toward greenwashing hasn’t lost any momentum. The word ‘green’ has become so popular, in fact, that everyone wants a piece of it. The problem is that if everything is green, nothing is green. It becomes a meaningless term.

What provided the impetus for this article was getting a tip about Crown Communities and their Green Cents labeled new homes. Keep reading to find out why it’s nothing but greenwashing.

What is greenwashing?

In essence, greenwashing is just what it sounds like: making something seem like it’s environmetally friendly when it’s not. It can take many forms, however. Tristan Roberts at Building Green wrote an article called The Nine Types of Greenwashing, in which he discussed some of the ways that companies will greenwash their products or services. They are:

  1. Green by association
  2. Lack of definition
  3. Unproven claims
  4. The non sequitur
  5. Forgetting the Lifecycle, a.k.a. the Red Herring
  6. Bait and switch
  7. Rallying behind a lower standard
  8. Reluctant enthusiast
  9. Outright lying

The names give you a pretty good idea of what’s going on, but you should read Tristan’s article for his elaboration of each method.

It’s green because we say it’s green!

Crown Communities builds new homes in Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. Yesterday, I was alerted to their Green Cents program, so I checked it out. Here’s the overview from their website.

greenwashing home builder crown communities green cents

If you’re a homebuyer, that might sound pretty good. Sadly, what they’re saying is that they build a house that might be slightly better than the worst house you’re allowed by law to build (i.e., one that just meets the building code). Let’s take a look at some of the items in their list.

Energy saving digital thermostats. The issue of thermostats is certainly a fun one, but usually when someone says you’re going to save energy with your thermostat, they’re talking about programmable thermostats. There’s no difference in a thermostat’s capability to save energy based on whether it’s digital or analog. And really, programmable thermostats don’t save energy either. People do when they program them properly (or use a learning thermostat, like the Nest).

ENERGY STAR appliances. This applies to the dishwasher and refrigerator. If you’ve done any shopping for these items lately, you may have noticed that it’s hard to find one that’s not ENERGY STAR certified.

Integrated house wrap. In other words, they’re going to install it the way it’s supposed to be installed. Maybe. Builders are getting better at this, and maybe Crown is doing it right, but still, doing what you’re supposed to do isn’t anything I’d call green.

Total draft elimination. Clearly they’re not defining draft as infiltration or air leakage, because every house, even an uber-tight passivhaus, leaks air. What they probably mean is that they’ve started paying attention to air-sealing…now that it’s required by the energy code in all three states where they’re building homes.

Thermal Resistant R-Value Insulation (walls R-13, ceilings R-30). This is my favorite! Let’s throw a bunch of sciency terms in there that all mean the same thing. Insulation is made of ‘thermal resistant’ material. All insulation has R-value. And guess what? In most of Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina, code requires walls to have R-13 insulation and ceilings to have R-30, so again they’re building a code minimum house here. Unless they build in the north Georgia mountains, where R-38 is required for the ceilings because they’re in IECC climate zone 4.

The other items on their list are either code minimum (13 SEER air conditioners, low-e windows), things you’d expect anyway (who’d buy a new home without drip-free faucets?!), items that may be better than starter homes (fiber-cement siding), items that meet a lower standard (SFI is widely considered inferior to FSC for sustainably grown lumber), and one thing that they seem to be confused about (they probably mean CO detector, not CO2).

According to another page on their website, a Crown Green Cents home can save you about $1733 per year…if you compare it to a “typical 5-10 year old home.” Funny, though, R-13 has been the code for wall insulation since the ’90s, yet they say this 5-10 year old home has R-11 in the walls. House wrap has been pretty standard for at least as long, yet their 5-10 year old home has none. They’ve built themselves a nice Straw Man of a house there. That should be number 10 in Tristan’s list.

Why a Crown Communities Green Cents home isn’t truly a green home

If you buy a Crown Green Cents home, you’re probably not getting a bad house. Energy codes have improved so much that the code minimum house now is actually a decent house, especially compared to older homes. Well, at least it has the potential to be a good house, depending on how well the code was enforced.

But Green Cents homes aren’t green in the truest sense of the word for the following reasons:

  1. No third-party verification. (#2 in Tristan’s list) This is one of the most important features of green-building and energy efficiency programs. Sure, internal quality control is important, but having someone from outside looking at the process yields a better product.
  2. Mostly code-minimum or expected features. (#7 in Tristan’s list) Yeah, it’s as green as every other barely-legal house out there, plus a little bit extra. That’s hardly green.
  3. Upgrades aren’t much of an upgrade. (#7 in Tristan’s list) ENERGY STAR appliances are pretty standard. SFI lumber isn’t the same as FSC lumber.

I’m sure plenty of home builders are going this route. John Wieland Homes has something similar they call their GreenCraft certified homes. (Interestingly, Green Cents is reminiscent of Georgia Power’s EarthCents program, and GreenCraft sounds a lot like Southface’s EarthCraft House program.)

Keep in mind, however, that there are important differences in homes that attain green-building certifications through third-party verification. The standards in true green-building programs are higher. The claim that ‘it’s green because I say it’s green’ has always bugged me. Yeah, it may be, but let’s see your evidence.


Related Articles

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The Science of Global Warming Is Older Than Quantum Mechanics

Can Energy Efficiency Programs Stay Ahead of Energy Codes?



Yeah, I know. I might get a phone call from their lawyer because I mentioned their name here and criticized this little label they’ve created. It’s happened before. I haven’t written anything that comes close to libel or slander, though, so if they want to come after me, I’m happy to talk with them. Maybe I can convince them to do some ENERGY STAR homes or at least get a HERS Index.


Photo of Earth tent from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, used under a Creative Commons license.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. I know I’m often a cynic and
    I know I’m often a cynic and contrarian, Allison, but I believe that “green” and “sustainable” are more often characterized by what we don’t do, and don’t buy, and often, it’s as simple as that. 
    We’re not going to buy our way out of peak and oil and climate change, but there’s a certain psychology on the part of both manufacturers and consumers that sees “buying stuff” as the solution to any and all problems. 
    – John

  2. I did a similar post a few
    I did a similar post a few years ago as builders in my region are claiming the same thing. Nothing annoys me more than seeing builders claiming code minimums as top of the line or cutting edge. But you have to give it to them, they know their audiance and their knowledge level of the subject of “green” and energy efficiency.  
    I should go back to my article and see what the builder is claiming now that new energy codes went into affect at the first of the year.

  3. Good job as always Allison-
    Good job as always Allison- thanks for keeping a lookout for such marketing absurdity.  
    That said, I have to call BS on your point #1: “No third-party verification.” Please provide data or research on how third party verification yields a better product, is a most important feature for green building, or is even a good investment for homeowners.  
    And while we’re at it, let’s find data that links quality with certifications, or better quality homes being built by licensed contractors over those who aren’t.  
    We intuitively think this stuff is true, and accept it as true because it just makes sense to us. But it’s not. In fact, I argue that third party verification drives up the cost of a project, records inaccurate results, causes systems to be commissioned improperly, slows the process of fixing homes, is a terrible investment, and should be abolished entirely.  
    Let’s use that money to fix homes instead.

  4. haha I too wrote about this
    haha I too wrote about this when I saw a builder site claiming super-efficient R13 insulation in the walls just after the NC code changed to R15.  
    My only hope with greenwashing is that raised awareness of “green” in general could mean that some things that actually are more sustainable will end up percolating into places where they otherwise wouldn’t. It doesn’t seem like it with this Green Cents program: they’re just trying to package the low-price stuff they already do as “green” to meet consumer demand without really changing. 
    My all-time favorite(and by “favorite” I mean most infuriorating) example of greenwashing has to be “Eco-Zip” plastic bags:  

  5. Ah, a topic near and dear to
    Ah, a topic near and dear to my heart. I’m going to play devil’s advocate and ask at what point do we reach a ‘green’ plateau? meaning are we always defining ‘green’ as something better than minimum? Does that mean that the green home from 5 years ago is no longer green because that is the minimum today? If so, then green continues to be a moving target, so how can we measure authentically and clearly? 
    Not that I don’t agree with most of what you said, Allison, it’s just that I see some critical nuances that keep getting run over. Apples and oranges continue to get mixed up in green characterizing. 

  6. John P.:
    John P.: That’s true, John. It was probably the beginning of the end when people became ‘consumers.’ We do still need to buy and build and eat stuff, however. Also, it’s not generally true that the greenest house is the one that already exists. Sometimes the amount of work needed to fix up an old house doesn’t  
    Josh: When you find it, post the link to your article here. I’d be interested in seeing it. 
    Mike M.: Glad you liked the article. I’m also happy to discuss your distaste for 3rd party verification and green building certifications. Yes, they take money and resources, but I do believe they make homes better. I’m not talking about fixing existing homes here. This article is about new homes.  
    This is a big topic and deserving of its own article, so I’ll come back to it soon. Let me just say here, though, that I have lots of anecdotal evidence that 3rd party verification works and that certifications matter. On a larger scale, Michael Blasnik has looked at the energy use of ENERGY STAR new homes vs other homes in Houston and Phoenix and found them to be not so different. Here’s one quote from the Houston report showing the importance of testing, which started as 3rd party testing with ENERGY STAR:  
    “ENERGY STAR has played an important role in influencing standard construction practices in residential buildings. For example, the ENERGY STAR program brought duct leakage testing and building envelope leakage testing into widespread use in the new construction market in Houston. This testing is likely to have contributed toward the common use of better duct installation and building framing practices so ENERGY STAR homes would pass the test requirements. Contractors then applied these same approaches to all new homes. This phenomenon is referred to as market transformation or ‘spillover.'” 
    Here’s a link to the report:  
    Houston ENERGY STAR report (pdf) 
    It’s certainly a great question, Mike, and I’ll look for more data and write up something soon.

  7. Mike, I routinely run into
    Mike, I routinely run into situations that 3rd Party Verification shows its value.  
    Friday; Energy Star New Home Certification. Energy Star Rated ceiling fans with incandescent bulbs. Home owner had changed them out. Two weeks ago, enjoyed a discussion with framers over sack lunch about cripples and double king studs. They went back and removed 8 cripples from under each of 2 72 inch wide windows. Still had 1 16 inch OC. I’ll bet the next house they frame will avoid the wasted cripples and perhaps have a few other missing thermal bypasses. 
    Started with a new builder last year. Lowest BD numbers were 4.8 ACH @ 50; this year half are below 4 ACH @ 50. IR shows improved knee wall performance. 
    3rd party verification is as much about education as verification.

  8. If the only end product any
    If the only end product any home builder produces, such as the one mentioned in this post, is an improved version of the same stupidity that has gone into American house construction for the past half century, how can that be considered “green” by any stretch.  
    Let’s see:  
    Do they still run ducts through attics? No mention of radiant barrier or “cool roof” or a foamed roof deck in their list. The ducts will gain unneccesary heat in summer, a large factor if the house is in a predominately cooling climate. Ideally, put the ducts in conditioned space…most homes built today have high ceilings…what’s a loss of two feet out of a twelve foot ceiling height for a furdown chase for ducts? It’s nothing. Do they do it? Not likely. 
    House wrap is good…but what about externally applied insulating sheathing? Even better as it reduces thermal bridging. 
    Any can lights in the ceiling beneath the attic? Are they ICATs?  
    Top plate penetrations sealed? Gaskets beneath all sole plates? 
    If you want a house that can move safely within the margins of being “green”, the devil is in the details. Problem is average homebuyer is not well schooled on how houses are put together, and I think builders like the one in this post know that. So they push the eye catching stuff like thermostats and dishwashers and 13 SEER a/c.

  9. Allison, 

    Thank you for such a simple yet comprehensive explanation of greenwashing. The greenwashing example company that you cited certainly bends the rules to achieve the illusion of a green building that is probably the farthest from green you can get without not meeting codes. 
    it would be nice to some kind of certification process to use the term green – – similar to U.L., but with more comprehensive ratings.

  10. Great article Allison. I’d
    Great article Allison. I’d love to see a full article addressing Mike’s point (the value of 3rd party certification). I’d say the number 2 obstacle we need to overcome (cost is #1) is the perception that certification/verification isn’t worth anything. Builders that tell consumers they are saving them $ by building in the “same” features w/o the overhead cost are certainly cutting corners. The problem is that the buyer has no idea which ones, or how many. I also agree with previous post about education being just as important as verification/certification.

  11. Allison I think a separate
    Allison I think a separate discussion of the value of 3rd Party inspection/validation/certification. As most larger scale builders are less and less necessarily experts on construction itself and/or have their skilled managers stretched out over larger and larger territories; they rely upon the expertise of their contractors and vendors. 
    We have conducted more than 15,000 third-party inspections to date in 2013 and we routinely data mine our clients warranty and cost metrics in order to fully validate the expense of third-party services. 
    I think there are plenty of active participants here on social media that can add to this discussion topic.

  12. Who hires and pays for the
    Who hires and pays for the third party verification?  
    I think in that answer lies the rotten apple Mike refers to. Good 3rd party verifiers are finding themselves at frustrating competitive disadvantage to those fast with the rubber stamp, and it looks like we may have a race to the bottom. Look forward to the blog post Allison…

  13. Earth Advantage has verified
    Earth Advantage has verified over 13,000 homes. Our business is alive and well, but we have to stay relevant, and we have to stay ahead of the curve (just like the green building programs themselves). I look forward to this article as well. Let me know if EA can help contribute to it.

  14. Third party inspections came
    Third party inspections came out of the mobile home market since the walls were closed up at the factory the local municipal inspectors could not verify if codes were met or not so they relied on 3rd party inspections.

  15. Fortunately, home buyers are
    Fortunately, home buyers are becoming more educated and thus able see through the marketing hype. 
    @Mike, I can understand why builders and subs who do excellent work wouldn’t want to pay extra for a 3rd party verifier when that money could have been used for a slightly better product. However, keep in mind, with rare exception, no one’s forcing them to participate. It’s a marketing decision. The thing is, a growing number of home buyers see the value and are willing to pay for it. For the market as a whole, how else can buyers trust builders’ marketing hype? 
    John N wrote: 
    > 3rd party verification is as much about education as verification. 
    Absolutely. Achieving cost-effective energy efficiency is first and foremost about process rather than products. Moreover, the most critical steps toward true EE and performance aren’t going to be apparent to buyers. 
    A HERS rating isn’t that expensive. That, plus a thermal enclosure inspection, is the best value for EE verification in new construction. It’s interesting to point out that BD/DB testing represent a large part of the cost, and those are things that any builder who’s serious about EE construction should be doing anyway. Right? 
    And yes, 3rd party verification has its own problems. But rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater over a few bad apples, we should strive to make verification more consistent rather than trying to tear it down.

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