Green Building Movement Shows Its True Colors: Highlights From The AIA Sustainability Summit

Bill Walsh | August 09, 2005 | Policies

All that is necessary for the triumph of greenwash is that good people do nothing (with apologies to Edmund Burke).

The practitioners at the heart of the green building movement have shown their true colors again: honestly green, they don't want the standards they follow and the certifications they hold to be dictated by the nation's most notorious anti-environmental business groups. This widespread conviction was transmitted by scores of emails and telephone calls to organizers of the Sustainable Building Standards Policy Summit convened last month by the American Institute of Architects (AIA).[1] AIA officials admonished skeptics to trust the Summit Task Group, populated by respected professionals in green architecture. We now know the AIA misled its members by suggesting that the all-star Task Group approved of the meeting's skewed agenda and greenwash panels. The Task Group was not consulted.

The Summit was a setup. Whoever designed the meeting[2] ignored most of the nation's green building programs, guidelines, tools, experience and expertise. They neglected over a decade of work by the AIA's own Committee On The Environment (COTE). The nation's largest green building organization, US Green Building Council (USGBC), got 30 minutes on the agenda. The day was really designed to showcase the 5-month-old Green Building Initiative (GBI) and its Green Globes rating system.

The sound-bite favored by GBI apologists is this: Green Globes is just another useful tool available to green building practitioners. Competition is healthy. Let the market decide.

But it's not that simple.

The GBI and Green Globes cannot be evaluated apart from the motives of the avowedly anti-environmental groups that are financing its premature elevation in the national green building dialogue. Why would trade associations announce their support for an organization that -- when asked by the AIA panel -- was unable to name its complete Board of Directors, explain how its building certification process will work, or predict how much it would cost? Trade groups are 100% confident that Green Globe will set a low bar for green building certification because they control its purse strings.

Any doubts about the intentions of the trade associations bankrolling the slick introduction of Green Globes in the US market were laid to rest by the opening remarks of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Reminding the audience that it is one of the most powerful lobbying forces in Washington and every state legislature, NAHB promised to oppose any effort to standardize green building systems, with the full weight of the organization. At least that's honest. Not so the American Plastics Council whose representative projected a colorful slide listing every conceivable plastic and declared them all equally green to any other building materials... at least under Green Globes.

Perhaps the most disingenuous speaker at the Summit was the American Forest and Paper Products Association (AFPA). The AFPA is transparently using Green Globes to pressure the USGBC into recognizing the timber industry's greenwash wood certification standard known as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).[3] In an unrelated interview, architect Raphael Sperry, President of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility[4], called the SFI wood certification "a program created... to muddy the water for consumers and greenwash bad corporate behavior. The folks who could have spent their time working to comply with FSC and protect forests... chose to intentionally generate disinformation. They are wasting even their own time, and yet they ask us to believe they stand for conservation!"[5]

Are the folks that brought us clearcuts and global dioxin contamination truly wasting their time peddling Green Globes? Only if the green building movement doesn't buy it.


[1] The meeting was held on July 25, 2005 at the AIA headquarters building in Washington, DC. (see HBNews)

[2] HBN offered to publish the AIA's unedited responses to our questions about who organized this meeting, how panelists were selected, and trade association funding of AIA initiatives. The AIA refused to respond.

[3] USGBC's LEED system currently awards credit only for wood certified by the independent Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

[4] Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility

[5] Grist Magazine, interview with Raphael Sperry