Green Building and The Problem of Marketing Greenness

I was recently contacted by an associate at ZweigWhite, a research firm serving the architecture, engineering, and environmental consulting markets, to comment on a series of studies released by Sustainable Rhythm on perceptions amongst green building professionals on green certifications, methods of evaluating green products and services, and marketing green-ness to their constituents. Here's my take on the results.

What we are seeing in part here is the natural maturation of the green building industries. Instead of being "wowed" by terms with ambiguous definitions (like the word "green" itself), consumers are gravitating toward demanding case studies and other research-based evidence to help evaluate the effectiveness of a particular product to reach a specific goal (i.e. save energy, automate a building, create a more productive/healthy environment for building occupants). The North Carolina Triangle Chapter study showed that firms were most concerned with the impact a green building product had on energy efficiency, actual performance data (suggesting case studies), and life cycle cost (suggesting return on investment analysis) in their decision-making process in product selection.

As the results of this study suggest, being green for the sake of being green is trending out. While we are still in an early adopter period where there will be cases of consumers specifying certain green building products and practices, the data from the study clearly shows that both firms and the consumers they serve are trending toward ROI-related decision-making. A similar transformation happened in the solar industry at the dawn of financing products and power-purchase agreements; both tools which offered a significant ROI over expensive and high down payment direct ownership and opened up an entirely new marketplace for large-scale installations and transactions which completely transformed the industry.

A big problem with communicating the benefits of being green is that there is no universally trusted voice, brand, or trustmark that has created and passed down a definition of "green." Likewise, the terms "sustainable" or "appropriate technology" have created more questions than answers and also trended out of use. Even the "low-carbon" and "carbon free" rage has died back. Net zero? Net producing? Haven't created universal appeal either. As more buzzwords have entered the lexicon, consumer weariness has increased. How do you measure benefits like greenness and sustainability? How do you equate carbon savings into a metric that makes impact?

To further confuse matters, a 2009 preliminary study conducted by the National Research Council Canada of LEED-certified buildings concluded that the LEED rating attained by a building rarely correlated with its energy savings:

"On average, LEED buildings used 18-39% less energy per floor area than their conventional counterparts. However, 28-35% of LEED buildings used more energy than their conventional counterparts.  Further, the measured energy performance of LEED buildings had little correlation with certification level of the building, or the number of energy credits achieved by the building at design time.  Therefore, at a societal level, green buildings can contribute substantial energy savings, but further work needs to be done to define green building rating schemes to ensure more consistent success at the individual building level."

A follow-up study is clearly required comparing the results of this study to the results of buildings under the new LEED v3 system. Still, results like this that cause questioning about the glut of certifications in the market.

But this question of whether or not LEED buildings save energy puts a host of certifications in the limelight. Are FSC-certified lumber and paper creating more biodiverse forest habitats? Are carbon offset projects really mitigating the effects of pollution?

What consumers need and crave is clarity, transparency, and value that is quantifiable and easy to understand.

In this age of rapid adoption of social media, it's authenticity that consumers crave, not a stream of branded content. Truth, not hype. Authenticity, not buzzword-of-the-day. Data-driven-results, not obtuse claims.

In order for the green building market to communicate the benefits of green, it needs to stop worrying about green and start talking about results: money saved, investments recouped, increase in sales/engagement with company employing green building practices, employee productivity increased, quality of life improved (happiness and satisfaction), maintenance on building lowered, hassles reduced.