Greenwash at Greenbuild, Gambling in Casablanca

Bill Walsh | December 02, 2009 | Policies

Captain Renault: I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!

Croupier: Your winnings, sir.

Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.

Captain Renault: Everybody out at once![1]

The reports are in. There’s gambling in Casablanca. Treehugger found the usual suspects on the exhibition floor.[2] GreenBiz too reported "more than a little hype," bordering on “irrational corporate exuberance,” but was relieved that at least the aisles were not “filled with greenwash. ” We ourselves blogged about Al Gore exhorting a cheering keynote crowd to “speak out against it” when they find it. A group called Forest Ethics did speak out against the greenwash Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), but Green Builder Media cast a critical eye on the messenger, not the message, questioning “how much of the protest has to do with legitimate environmental concerns and how much has to do with maintaining market share.” Like gambling in Rick’s Café Americain, greenwash is an integral part of the Greenbuild story. But it’s not the whole story.

Amidst the labels, certifications, greenmarketing, greenhype and greenwash at Greenbuild 2009, a paradigm shift was on. New informational transactions were taking place, trading on radical transparency – the convergence of information and information technology.

You could see it in a growing array of transparency tools that made their debut at Greenbuild: the Perkins+Will Precautionary List, the LEED Pilot Credit on Persistent Bioaccumulative Pollutants and our own Pharos Project. These initiatives reflect the hardening consensus that chemicals that wreak havoc on our hormones, or that accumulate in mother’s milk and babies, should not be in “green” building products – regardless of whether the products are certified. These tools reinforce others that target these chemicals for avoidance, including the Cascadia GBC’s Red List, the SMART standard, the Green Guide for Health Care, the Green Screen For Safer Chemicals, the international Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, and a growing number of national and US state government initiatives targeting fabric treatments and flame retardants.

This is a major advance. By focusing our efforts on a goal that addresses a specific problem, we push the market towards good solutions, rather than less-bad products. And we know it will work. When brominated flame retardants were phased out of use in Europe, the concentrations in women’s breast milk there declined.[3]

In some cases, healthier alternatives are presently hard to come by. But as our own Pharos Project demonstrates, in other cases – resilient flooring, composite wood, or batt insulation – there are available mainstream products that can reduce the global footprint of persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals, without sacrificing price or performance.

When it comes to wood products, the banner hung at Greenbuild got the attention, but the nation’s leading forest conservation groups have assembled an exhaustive website,, that lays out the case – explaining why LEED should not reward certifications, including the SFI, that are less protective than the FSC standards that have been painstakingly negotiated with timber companies and other stakeholders. This information – available in any format you want, short fact sheets, long policy papers, bullet points, academic studies, legal complaints, provocative ads, you name it – makes it transparently clear that the debate over the LEED certified wood credit is not an intramural contest for market share among similarly motivated do-gooders. Many USGBC members who have studied the facts for themselves publicly support an “FSC or Better” standard, including chapters in California, Massachusetts, and the Pacific Northwest.

Greenwash aside, the current market saturation of green labels and certifications seems to elicit more questions than answers. With so many products qualified for LEED credits and third party certifications, does your choice make any difference? Increasingly, the new transparency in the marketplace is revealing the answer to that question to be, yes.


[1] Dialogue from the film Casablanca, 1942

[2] Alter, Lloyd “TreeHugger Reports From Greenbuild 2009”, “There were the ususal greenwashers . . . .” available at

[3] Lignell S, M Aune, PO Darnerud, S Cnattingius and A Glynn. Persistent organochlorine and organobromine compounds in mother's milk from Sweden 1996–2006: Compound-specific temporal trends. Environmental Research doi:10.1016/j.envres.2009.04.011.