Burying the LEED

Bill Walsh | October 25, 2012 | Policies

USA Today's two-part investigative report on the US Green Building Council documents the growing pains of an innovative experiment by American business, but stops short of shedding light on what is happening behind the scenes as the Council moves forward its most important innovation in a decade.

Despite cutthroat opposition from the chemicals and plastics industries, USGBC is now seeking public comment on new credits that will reward both product content disclosure and the avoidance of some recognized chemical hazards. The credits specifically reward the use of the new Health Product Declaration, an unprecedented open standard format for building product disclosure that has already earned widespread support across the building industry, including building products manufacturers. Should these credits be approved by vote of the membership early next year, they would establish a level of product transparency unrivaled in any other economic sector.

Sensing the moment, USGBC President and CEO Rick Fedrizzi took to the Huffington Post earlier this year to issue a business to business condemnation of the "scoundrels...who attempt to savage a mountain of scientific evidence in favor of obfuscation and innuendo...[i]n their effort to protect a status quo that is good for them but not so much for the rest of us." He was talking about industry trade associations like the American Chemistry Council, which have used those same tactics for over 30 years to frustrate effective implementation and reform of our nation's profoundly inadequate chemical regulations.

The question is not and has never been whether LEED could be doing more to advance the goal of healthy materials. Of course it could. But why hasn't it? USA Today's recounting of this part of the USGBC story was surprisingly superficial.

The vinyl industry didn't "protest" a LEED credit proposed in 2001 to reward reduced use of vinyl. It waged war against it. By 2005 it was financing a competing greenwash building standard known as GreenGlobes to undermine market support for the then fledgling LEED system. This was done in alliance with the timber industry, as part of its decade-long campaign to weaken LEED credits that favor FSC-certified wood.

This past summer, in response to a proposal for a voluntary credit to reduce modest quantities of toxic chemicals in buildings, the American Chemistry Council went for the jugular. It "protested," if you will, with an army of Washington DC lobbyists deployed to choke off the USGBC's revenue from federal and state government agencies who build to LEED standards, and, get this, launched yet another bogus coalition to lobby against high performance building standards.

One can understand their motivation. Existing materials credits in LEED have proven effective at reducing chemical exposures, transforming markets and, crucially, increasing business support for higher standards. Seven years after the US Green Building Council's LEED rating system began awarding a credit for use of composite wood products with no added urea formaldehyde, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) voted unanimously to adopt the nation's most stringent regulations on formaldehyde emissions from particleboard and other composite wood products. Industry trade associations vigorously opposed the CARB regulation, belittling the science and predicting economic disaster. Reinforced by the LEED-inspired market support for their products, however, forward-thinking manufacturers joined the Healthy Building Network in a campaign with health care professionals and organizations, California cities and ordinary citizens to tip the balance, and win the CARB vote for a strong regulation.

The USGBC is at the center of a generational divide in business between 21st century manufacturers who share the values of their customers and seek to minimize everyone's exposure to avoidable toxic hazards, and the retrograde cigarette-science tactics of "Big Chem." Some companies, like BASF, Dow and DuPont, are playing both sides of the table, burnishing their brands with USGBC memberships, while financing and directing their trade association's campaign to destroy the USGBC brand.

I regret that USA Today missed this part of the story. But I must note the irony that my online version of the report was sponsored by a member of the American Chemistry Council. Thank you, Exxon-Mobil.