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Green or Greenwashed – what’s the difference?

Around the globe there is a growing emphasis on protecting our environment. Sometimes referred to as reducing the carbon footprint, this movement has resulted in an outpouring of products relabeled as green.   Buyers are motivated by emotions and often will pay more money to support planet-friendly products and operations. The challenge for buyers is determining when a claim is valid (green) and when the message is just clever word play (greenwashing).

It seems that every company has launched a line of GREEN products to show that they are environmentally friendly. In some cases, the various operations and processes are deemed to be green because of minimal waste. With or without some kind of formal certification, it is possible to demonstrate the “green” nature of a product. Some of the factors that are analyzed during an environmental impact assessment are harmful emissions, recycled content, water use, energy efficiency, and reliance on renewable resources.

Check the specifics of certifications for applicability to your project needs. Be alert to the use of buzz words and take time to carefully assess product options as they relate to the needs of your application.

Following is a brief listing of some certifications that are available in different areas. Links to websites will provide more detailed information about the different ways a company can move towards greater environmentally responsible management.

Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) – this certification sets a high standard by examining the entire life cycle of environmentally safe and healthy materials.

Energy Star – this identification is placed on products that use substantially less energy than comparable products. Used in North America, Europe, Australia and elsewhere. and .

Environmental Choice – This is a Canadian organization, and similar to C2C, it certifies a product’s environmental responsibility  based on life cycle analysis of harmful emissions, recycled content, water use, energy efficiency and other factors. .

European Eco-Label – This EU organization has established strict scientific criteria for minimizing environmental impacts. .

Good Environmental Choice – Australia has this independent organization that identifies products and services that have a smaller ecological footprint that their competitors. .

Green Guard – This institute certifies low-emission building materials and indoor products. .

Green Seal – certifies low-emission paints, adhesives and cleaning products. .

Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) – certifies food, flowers, fish , electricity, wood products and manufactured goods, for various levels of environmental performance. The Indoor Advantage  cert guarantees that products used indoors have minimal or no VOC (volatile organic compounds). .

Aside from certifications, there are some words and terms commonly used to designate a product or process as having attributes that are environmentally responsible. It is useful to become familiar with these terms as they relate to the goals of your application.


Green – not only is this the name of a familiar hue on the color palette, it is also used to indicate environmentally friendly products or processes. In the following two examples using this word, the first statement can be easily supported with physical evidence, while the second case it tells the buyer nothing specific about the company’s commitment to environmental responsibility and bears deeper investigation.

“Company uses only recycled packaging made from 100% post-consumer materials.”[can be proved on inspection].

“Every employee of the company has a GREEN focus”.[statement has no substance]


Sustainable – The US Dept of Commerce defines sustainable manufacturing as the creation of manufactured products that use processes that minimize negative environmental impacts, conserve energy and natural resources, are safe for employees, communities, and consumers and are economically sound.  “The company recycles 100% of production waste into energy using their onsite trash-to-steam generator to produce half of the plant’s total energy needs.”


Low-impact materials –  Environmental impact is reduced by using products that can be grown or naturally replenished or cleansed at a rate that exceeds human depletion of the resource. For instance, bamboo is a rapidly renewable resource, whereas certain kinds of stone, fossil fuels, etc., are finite resources. The process of extracting stone or fossil fuels degrades the environment, and decreases the value and viability of the land for its inhabitants. The two examples following demonstrate different levels of participation in environmental responsibility. “The company only uses 100% reclaimed lumber to manufacture their widgets”. “The mining operations rely on wind turbines to produce the energy needed for extracting metal ores from the earth.”

Low Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) – Volatile Organic Compounds are organic chemical compounds that can significantly vaporize and enter the atmosphere during use, application or drying out of paint or other coatings. This process can lead to unsafe toxins that can be inhaled by workers or inhabitants. Manufacturers must disclose the VOC content of products on Material Safety Data Sheets, and management should utilize all available resources to create a safe and healthy workspace where VOCs are present. Evaluate the claims in the context of your project requirements. How much less is enough to make a difference? ”the company’s green products have x% less VOCs than the competition” [but is any level safe?].  “the company has eliminated all VOCs from its product line” [show me the TDS, proof]

Renewable energy – Energy derived from resources that are regenerative, rapidly replenished, or for all practical purposes cannot be depleted. Examples : solar photovoltaic power generation and solar thermal energy; biomass from landfill gas, municipal solid waste gasification, and wood-waste; and geothermal, hydro, and wind power generation.  “The company installed three wind turbines this week, and expects that they will produce 75% of the plant’s electricity requirement.”

Energy-efficient – A product or building technique that reduces energy waste, thereby helping to reduce energy bills. “the company installed a living rooftop and expects a 30% reduction in costs to heat and cool the plant”.

Embodied energy – Embodied energy is an accounting methodology which aims to find the sum total of the energy necessary for an entire product lifecycle. This lifecycle includes raw material extraction, transport,[1] manufacture, assembly, installation, disassembly, deconstruction and/or decomposition. It is difficult, if not impossible to quantify, and there is no accepted standard for calculating it.

Carbon footprint – The sum of carbon emissions associated with a lifestyle, building or activity. This term is usually used to illustrate the higher or lower amount of carbon dioxide emitted between otherwise comparable alternatives, such as the difference between shipping products by air (which has a large carbon footprint), or driving them using biodiesel (which has a low carbon footprint). This is a difficult calculation with many variable factors.

Carbon emissions – Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane and fluorocarbons, all of whose absorption of solar radiation has possibly contributed to the greenhouse effect and global warming. Carbon emissions are a greenhouse gas. Methane is also a greenhouse gas, and is more severe on a molecular level than carbon. However, greenhouse gas emissions’ most apparent and concerning source are carbon emissions.

Carbon-neutral – A term used to describe a building design that consumes no fuels that will release carbon dioxide, or a design that has used renewable fuels as energy sources to ensure that the total production of carbon dioxide related to the project is zero.

In summary, the ever-increasing focus on sustainable living has extended to virtually every aspect of our existence. Compliance requirements vary from one country to another.  A wealth of informational resources are available online.  Voluntary participation in taking action to reduce one’s carbon footprint is encouraged; “green” product offerings may well complement a company’s existing environmental management plan, and the links provided above will be useful resources.

For further help and advice, please contact Permabond.