Will the Green Building Movement Go Organic? The USDA ORGANIC Label Provides Food for Thought

Bill Walsh | December 09, 2004 | Policies

In a new anthology of essays reacting to the 2004 Presidential election,[1] acclaimed environmental writer Sandra Steingraber[2] foresees the green building movement of tomorrow grown as robust as the organic movement of today - a transformational force in the mainstream marketplace, meaningfully improving the prospects both for local communities and the global commons, and populated by professionals whose growing prosperity belies their infectious optimism.

The publication and the observation are timely. The turning point for organic agriculture was reached just four years ago. In December 2000, "organic" began moving from the food co-op to the Food Lion when the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) established its uniform definition for food labels nationwide.[3] This December, the US Green Building Council (USGBC) promises its draft technical advisory report on PVC building materials, possibly the most important debate over national environmental health standards since the organic standards rule.

Then, like now, the seminal but irregular principles that define an alternative movement will make accommodations to a uniform national standard which promises to catalyze mainstream transformation. The USGBC's aggressive marketing of its LEED[4] green building rating system has already swamped competing models. It is the de facto national green building code. Proposed federal legislation, sure to be reintroduced in the 109th Congress, will all but make this official.[5]

The final USDA Organic standard is a compromise document, its imperfections chronicled in of all places, a green building publication.[6] The underfunded program is still under attack by big business.[7] Even so, Steingraber confidently declares that "organic agriculture isn't going to disappear." The market is moving. Consumers quite literally buy it - sometimes in 7-11's. Business is booming. Because organic, the word and the label, actually mean something. And that has value, in any sense of the word.

Savor this. In the late 1990's chemical, biotech and agribusiness trade associations inserted language that broadened the definition of "organic," to include food that had been irradiated, genetically altered, and grown with toxic sewage sludge. They argued various technicalities and complexities. They threatened litigation.

But organic farmers don't use radioactive isotopes. They stood fast, took their case public. Some 275,000 public comments to the USDA, the most ever received in a federal rule making, convinced them to delete the language. This was celebrated as the very essence of participatory democracy, a sign of the times. The organic movement had arrived.

Green building professionals have long eschewed PVC (also known as vinyl). Last February, scores of them, USGBC members, participated in the Council's PVC Task Group comment period. Far from celebrated, sadly, their emails were characterized as little better than electronic spam by some Council staff.

Not so.

Green building practitioners, no less than organic farmers, are the guardians of the movement's integrity. They started it, for God's sake. They have the largest stake in preserving its value, in every sense of the word, over the long term.

This year marks the fourth December that the USGBC wrestles over whether or not vinyl is a green building material. The debate over national organic standards raged over a decade.

The next time you pay a premium for "organic," enjoy its wholesome food for thought.



Just one week before the USGBC is expected to release its recommendations about whether PVC will be considered a green building material, a new report concludes that PVC waste disposal creates perpetual hazards to the environment and human health.

For more information about the report, "PVC-Bad News Comes in Threes: The Poison Plastic, Health Hazards, and the Looming Waste Crisis," visit the HBN website at [no longer available]


[1] What We Do Now, published by Melville House Publishing, also features contributions from Howard Dean, Donna Brazile, Harper's Magazine Editor Lewis Lapham, among others. Available December 10, 2004 from http://www.melvillehousebooks.com

[2] http://www.Steingraber.com. See also Steingraber's report for HBN: "Update on the Environmental Health Impacts of PVC as a Building Material: Evidence from 2000-2004" at http://www.healthybuilding.net/pvc/must_reads.html

[3] US Department of Agriculture, press release, December 20, 2000. http://www.usda.gov/news/releases/2000/12/0425.htm

[4] Leadership In Energy and Environmental Design

[5] Senate Bill 2620

[6] Green Home Living "The New Organic Standard" Autumn, 2002. http://www.greenhome.com/info/magazine/003/econews1.html

[7] Organic Consumers Association, press release, May 26, 2004. http://www.organicconsumers.org/organic/reversal.cfm