Greenwashing?

Going green
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  December 21, 2011

Governor Paul LePage dealt a blow to Maine's green building industry earlier this month when he issued an executive order expanding the types of "green" wood products that can be used in state building construction. Environmental organizations have accused the governor of "greenwashing" the news, i.e., hyping an eco-friendliness that may not exist.

Dated December 7, the order states that "the design, construction, operation and maintenance of any new or expanded state building shall incorporate 'Green Building' standards that give certification credits equally to forest products grown, manufactured, and certified under the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Forest Stewardship Council, American Tree Farm System and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification systems."

Sounds pretty harmless, right? Not so fast.

These details get a little weedy, but the basic message is this: the governor is telling the preeminent standards-setting body for the green building industry to go climb a tree. Meanwhile, he's validating programs that have been affiliated with the timber industry, not known for its commitment to the environment.

Starting in 2003, green buildings in Maine were required to comply with the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard put forth by the non-profit US Green Building Council. The LEED framework assesses everything from site selection to water and energy efficiency to the sourcing of building materials. LEED certification is the mark of commitment to sustainability, and it drives the green building business.

To gain LEED lumber-sourcing credits, wood must be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an independent third-party certification organization that happens to be "the only [such body] that a broad coalition of environmental groups supports," says Sami Yassa, a forestry expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The other standards systems on the governor's list, Yassa says, "are promoted almost exclusively by the timber industry. They do not warrant a green label — they allow practices that are not environmentally supported."

Because it appears to require that the state use a green building standard that recognizes equally both legitimate and questionable certification regimes — and the USGBC does not — observers on both sides interpret LePage's executive order as precluding the USGBC's stamp of approval on Maine state buildings.

"It looks to us basically like the state of Maine will not certify their buildings to LEED any longer," agrees Lane Burt, technical policy director for the US Green Building Council. "This is very unfortunate and deeply disturbing."

In a triumphant press release, Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) president and CEO Kathy Abusow said "green building rating tools like . . . LEED . . . that do not recognize forest certification equally would not meet the requirements of this executive order, in our opinion."

The SFI, which would certainly benefit from the governor's order, has been called out by several environmental organizations for conflicts of interest with the logging industry.

In a letter to Fortune500 companies last year, the non-profit advocacy organization ForestEthics said: "SFI's greenwashing could be toxic for any brand associated with it. SFI is spending millions of dollars to market business as usual environmental destruction as 'green,' and these misleading claims undermine the hard work and smart choices of any business making a sincere effort to be environmentally responsible."

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  Topics: The Editorial Page , Natural Resources Defense Council, Paul Lepage
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