A Case of Greenwashing?

Feb. 2, 2012
We have spent many years as a trade publication championing the sustainable design movement and providing content to help designers cut through the greenwashing, not perpetuate it. So, I went back to re-read what we had published and to determine how badly we had sinned.
I’m usually thrilled to receive e-mails from our readers (it happens all too seldom), so I was particularly interested when I received one about our January 2012 issue. That is, until I got past the first sentence in which this dear reader had praised us on our coverage of new workstation concepts and products that appeared in the issue.

From that point on, she called into question our reporting of natural stone as a sustainable material (“The Original Green Material,” January 2012, p. 64) in our special Tile & Stone special section. Specifically, she felt the article was nothing more than an example of greenwashing that the industry has been trying so hard to do away with, and that our integrity should be called into question.


Here’s what Karen D. Joslin, LEED AP-BD+C, had to say about our piece on natural stone:

“I must comment on the description of natural stone as a ‘Green’ material by Joshua Levinson. This is a prime example of what we call green-washing and I believe impacts the integrity of your publication. As a long time commercial interior designer and now full time LEED Manager, the confusion of natural materials with green and environmentally preferable products is very disturbing!

I applaud the industry goals of transparency and also documenting environmental stewardship in their production processes. But there can be no mistake – harvesting a resource that takes many thousands if not millions of years to be created is in NO WAY GREEN. The fossil fuels burned in the quarrying and transporting, as well as many of the coatings stone often requires for commercial or institutional use also work against using it unless absolutely necessary. It is terrifically difficult to remove and reclaim, so unless the project needs a forever material and a special feature, there are few reasons to recommend natural stone.

“Sorry, but articles such as yours are what designers and owners see and believe and what we work to overcome almost every day.”

This letter stung pretty badly, because it contradicts our editorial mission. We have spent many years as a trade publication championing the sustainable design movement and providing content that is intended to help designers cut through the greenwashing, not perpetuate it. So, I went back to re-read what we had published and to determine how badly we had sinned before responding. (You can find the original article here.)

Upon further review, we had, in fact, made the mistake of praising natural stone’s “bona fide” sustainable attributes in the headline and subhead of the story, which many of you may not have been able to look past (and for which I apologize). However, with so many media outlets competing for your time and attention, we, as editors, often write headlines in an effort to catch your eyes and draw you into reading the entire article—sometimes more successfully than others.

But as I delicately explained to our observant reader, the bulk of the article had less to do with touting the benefits of specifying natural stone as it did about a new standard that is being developed to help specifiers understand just how “green” stone really is (or isn’t).

As I told Ms. Joslin, “our intention in publishing the article was to inform our readers about the new NSC 373 standard being developed by NSF International and the Natural Stone Council to meet ANSI requirements. As you know, ANSI is perhaps the most recognized and well-respected standard-setting organization in North America, and it was not our intent to ‘greenwash’ a product (nor is it ever), but rather, to let our audience know what is happening in the world of sustainable product specification.”

What I believe author Joshua Levinson attempted to communicate to readers was that new metrics are being developed so that specifiers can more easily and clearly understand the origins of stone, the energy involved in extracting and processing it, as well as what LEED credits might apply so that he or she can make a more informed decision when making product selections.

How do you think we did? Are we guilty of the sin of greenwashing, or do you feel like you know a bit more about whether you should specify natural stone in your next LEED project? Sound off on the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you—good or bad.

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