The marketing strategies used to sell products — ranging from cars and food to clothing and building products — can lead us to believe that we are doing something good for the environment, when that notion is clearly untrue.  Volkswagen has recently been in the news for its diesel deception.  David Gelles points out in his article, Social Responsibility That Rubs Right Off, that “greenwashing is spreading like a weed.”  The Federal Trade Commission has guidelines called “Green Guides”, to help marketers avoid greenwashing traps.  So, how can the architectural world avoid greenwashing?  There are two ways to make sure that you are designing your projects so that they are good for the environment and good for the people who use them: consult the manufacturer’s “ingredient list” for each product and utilize the companies who compile environmentally-friendly building product information.

The United States Department of Labor helps factory workers identify what chemical they might be exposed to by requiring the use of a Safety Data Sheet (SDS), formerly known as a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).  Building products also come with an SDS to help communicate the chemical characteristics and dangers associated with the product.  A company, like Grace, provides easy-to-access SDS documents for all of their building products.  For example, materials used for an Air Barrier, are available on the company’s web site.

Building Green is a good source where designers can find products that are green, but there is a membership cost to access this information. The Whole Building Design Guide also has design guidance for selecting products and systems that do not have a negative impact on the environment, and this service is free.

There is so much more that we don’t know about building products, and the manufacturers do not want to tell us.  Often, there will be strict confidentially associated with building products.  So, what should a designer or specifier do?  Research, and then more research.  Don’t take a sales representative’s word as complete truth.  Don’t take that nicely printed, glossy Material brochure as complete truth.  Read sample specifications and manufacturer’s product information with a critical eye and analyze the information that is in front of you.