Shades of Green

April 1, 2005
Anita Baltimore, FASID

Navigating through the "greenwash" of sustainable products is no easy task, but industry and associations can help clear the way.

The release last fall of the much-anticipated LEED Rating System for Commercial Interiors was reason for celebration within the interior design community. With the number of LEED projects escalating, designers have been clamoring for guidance on how to document their contribution for LEED certification. LEED-CI is a great start, and the announcement concerning the development of a LEED for Homes program is welcome news for residential designers. We applaud the U.S. Green Building Council for providing leadership in these areas that have a significant impact not only on the
environment, but also on the health and safety of occupants.

These advances present us with a new set of challenges. Thanks to the interest of the media, the support of industry and the efforts of a number of professional organizations, interior designers today have a much greater understanding of and appreciation for green and sustainable issues as they relate to the built environment. What they continue to lack is clear, reliable, consistent information on how to apply sustainable design principles to their practice. This is especially true in regard to researching and specifying products.

LEED is not much help in this respect. The USGBC's "Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About LEED for Commercial Interiors" states clearly that its LEED rating systems are intended for use in certifying buildings and tenant spaces, "not the materials that are used to construct"—and, one might add, to furnish and finish the interior of—"the building." It continues, "Within the LEED rating systems, building products contribute to achieving LEED points following performance-based requirements. To meet these requirements, practitioners identify products that have specific attributes. Some LEED points will require that certain limits or minimums be met. Other points require that specific product technical information be quantified in order to calculate the product's aggregate environmental or health value."The authors of the FAQ suggest that practitioners consult with manufacturers' representatives to identify products "that may contribute to LEED credits." Even if we assume that most designers have access to well-educated and well-informed sales personnel, how are they to decide which products are most appropriate and most sustainable for a particular project?

For designers faced with an overwhelming array of products, much is at stake. At this time there is no standard by which to evaluate the sustainability of products. Many products now claim to be "green" or "natural" or "environmentally friendly" or "recycled" or "recyclable" or "sustainable," etc. Again, there is no accepted industry standard for these terms. Some refer to materials, manufacturing processes or product life cycles; others are simply marketing terms. Moreover, some of these claims have proven to be overstated if not entirely untrue, giving rise to the term "greenwashing." If
designers are to rely on manufacturers to help them select appropriate products, how are they to sort the good from the greenwashers? Will a "green" product qualify toward LEED credit, or does the product also need to be "sustainable," and by whose
definition? If designers are specifying products to satisfy LEED criteria, are they also meeting the requirements of clients and occupants?

These are complex and complicated questions. Arriving at the answers will involve the knowledge and cooperation of many different sectors of the design community. Nonetheless, we must begin to address them, and many others, if designers are to have confidence in their ability to create and implement truly sustainable designs. The future of our profession, as well as the planet, demands that we do so.

In the meantime, we need to provide designers with the information, training
and tools to assist them in making difficult decisions as this burgeoning field of
sustainable design wrestles with definitions, norms and standards. Professional organizations, as well as industry, can play a role in this effort. At ASID, our Sustainable Design Council is looking at how and what we can contribute to aid designers in obtaining and using reliable information. Some of these resources are now available at the Sustainable Design Information Center on our Web site at (To access the information center, scroll over or click on the ASID Resource Center under Quick Links on the home page.) I invite you to take a look.
ASID president Anita Baltimore has served as an ASID volunteer at both the chapter and
society levels for more than 25 years. She is a founder of Interior Design Services, Inc.,
located in Nashville, TN. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480; fax: (202) 546-3240;

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