Cutting Through the Greenwash

June 1, 2006
With the market being flooded with products that claim to be more environmentally friendly than others, it’s important to determine the difference between what’s truly sustainable and what is merely “greenwashing.” This list of questions provides a great way to engage suppliers in an earnest dialogue about their sustainable design products.

As architects and designers begin their search for what's green and what's not—also known as "greenwash"— it's often difficult to know where to start an informative and intelligent conversation with suppliers. The International Interior Design Association (IIDA) Washington State Chapter (, in its effort to produce its annual GreenWorld exhibit, has dedicated hours of research to determine the right kinds of questions to ask manufacturers. It recommends the following reformatted version of Table One of ASTM E-2129 (Standard Practice for Data Collection for Sustainability Assessment of Building Products), which is reproduced here to help NeoCon® attendees as they search The Merchandise Mart looking for appropriate products for their sustainable design projects.

Take this list with you and see what you can find out as you talk to manufacturers. These are just a few questions to open the dialogue between you, the specifier or end-user and the manufacturer. Remember that the manufacturing industry responds to its customers' needs and to their requests. When you begin to ask questions and demand sustainable products, manufacturers will surely follow.

Criterion #1:Materials (Product Feedstock)*1.1 Have efforts, such as mining management, site restoration, use of 100 percent recycled content, etc., been made to minimize and/or avoid negative environmental impacts (including impact to rare or endangered resources or species, releases of toxic chemicals or hazardous air pollutants, etc.) in obtaining raw materials for this product? If yes, describe these efforts.1.2 Does the product meet the requirements of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations for content of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)? (The EPA National VOC Rule can be found in the Federal Register of September 11, 1998—Volume 63, Number 176, pages 48819-48847).1.3 Does the product (coatings, adhesives, etc.) meet the requirements of South Coast Air Quality Management District regulations for content of VOCs?1.4 Does the product meet federal regulations concerning substances listed as being carcinogenic by the National Toxicology Program? Criterion #2:Manufacturing2.1 Has the manufacturer taken steps to minimize the use of non-renewable energy from the point at which raw materials are gathered to the point at which the final product is transported to the building site? If yes, describe these measures.2.2 Is any of the waste produced in making this product reclaimed on-site? If yes, what percentage of the waste is reclaimed? Of the waste that is not reclaimed on-site, how is that waste handled?2.3 Does the process for manufacturing this product avoid the release of substances listed on the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory at or above the levels that require reporting to the EPA? If no, indicate how much of each substance is released per unit of product.2.4 Have any improvements been made to limit negative environmental impacts relating to the manufacturing process? If yes, describe the benchmark against which improvements are measured as well as the degree of improvement.2.5 If water is used during the production process, have water conservation and/or recycling measures been initiated? If yes, describe the measures and what percentage of total water usage they address.2.6 Has the manufacturer undertaken any of the following actions? If yes, describe the benchmark against which the improvements are measured and the degree of improvement:2.6[a] Redesigned a production process to decrease greenhouse gas emissions? 2.6[b] Redesigned a production process to decrease liquid effluents? 2.6[c] Redesigned a production process to utilize less toxic materials? 2.6[d] Substituted safer solvents in a production process? 2.6[e] Instituted more stringent dust controls? 2.6[f] Installed smokestack particulate collectors or gas scrubbers? 2.6[g] Installed or improved in-plant solid and toxic waste reduction programs?2.7 Does the manufacturing facility comply with Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) requirements? Criterion #3:Operational Performance of Installed Product3.1 If applicable, does the product qualify for an EPA Energy Star rating or meet the energy efficiency recommendations of the Department of Energy's (DOE) Federal Energy Management Program?3.2 Describe routine maintenance procedures for the product.3.3 How long will the product last in the building if maintained properly with routine maintenance procedures?3.4 Does the manufacturer provide detailed instructions with the product upon delivery to the job site for the proper use and maintenance required in order to ensure that this product will last? Criterion #4: Indoor Air Quality4.1 Is there any other information about how this product contributes to indoor environmental quality—positively or negatively, (e.g. acoustical properties, lighting, potential risks to workers during application, etc.) that has not already been reported, but should be exposed? If yes, describe. (If this product is not intended to be used in the indoor environment or will not interface with the occupants, indicate NA). Criterion #5:Corporate Environmental Policy5.1 Does the manufacturer have a written environmental policy? If yes, how can a copy of this statement be obtained?5.2 Does the manufacturer have a reclamation program or any other program in place to facilitate the recycling or reuse of its product by accepting return of the product at the end of its useful life? If no, comment on the environmental impact of the product as a waste material. If yes, comment on how much of the product is actually reused or recycled at the end of the product's life-cycle.5.3 Does the manufacturer have a program in place to reduce the amount of the product's packaging? If yes, describe.5.4 Does the manufacturer have a program in place to facilitate the return, reuse, recycling or composting of the product's packaging? If yes, describe.5.5 Can the environmental claims on this questionnaire be substantiated with invoices, data sheets or other documentation? If yes, indicate how copies of this documentation can be obtained.5.6 Does the manufacturer provide information on the service life of the product or encourage the use of professional guidelines to determine the service life of the product?5.7 Does the manufacturer provide information regarding natural disaster mitigation, such as performance of the product during a natural disaster or appropriate response after a natural disaster?5.8 Is there any additional, objective information you could provide about the environmental quality of the building product or element you offer that you would like taken into consideration? If yes, describe the information and indicate how copies of this evidence could be obtained upon request.

*Note that some of the questions under Criterion #1 (Materials [Product Feedstock]) refer to attributes of products, (e.g., toxicity) that pose concerns for indoor environmental quality as well. In the interest of avoiding repetition, those questions are not repeated here. Respondents are reminded to answer all questions in the general section of this questionnaire.

These questions have been reproduced, with permission, from Table 1 of E 2129-01 Standard Practice for Data Collection for Sustainability Assessment of Building Products, ©ASTM International, 100 Barr Harbor Dr., West Conshohocken, PA 19428.

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