Transforming Markets, or Transforming Marketing?

Bill Walsh | September 27, 2007 | Policies

trans • for • ma • tion


1. A complete change, usually into something with an improved appearance or usefulness. [1]

After reading the last edition of the Healthy Building News, Blessed Unrest In The Green Building Movement, a respected expert on the Forest Stewardship Council's (FSC) certification process remarked that he appreciated the article's acknowledgment of an often overlooked point: that "the FSC system is positively transforming both the building materials market and global forest stewardship." He asked somewhat rhetorically, where else can we directly associate a shift in the green building marketplace to positive change at the point of impact?

It is a good question.

The goal of market transformation is a cornerstone of the green building movement. It anchors the mission statement of the USGBC [2] as it does ours here at the Healthy Building Network. Transformation is an ideal, but it has also become a buzz-word. To what extent is the green building movement accomplishing the goal of transformation, triggering "complete change" commensurate with the challenge we face? It's hard to tell.

A big part of the problem is greenwash. Too many companies and industries have indeed transformed, i.e., completely changed, their marketing strategy to rebrand products and practices "green" even as they relentlessly resist transformation of the status quo.

When Home Depot invited suppliers to submit products for consideration in its Eco-Options program, manufacturers claimed that more than 60,000 of the items currently on the shelves were already "green." According to the New York Times, "Plastic-handled paint brushes were touted as nature-friendly because they were not made of wood. Wood-handled paint brushes were promoted as better for the planet because they were not made of plastic." [3]

That line was crafted to make readers chuckle.

But is the joke on us?

Industry trade associations have tied the USGBC in knots for years with these very same arguments. The American Plastics Council wrapped its defense of PVC plastic, also known as vinyl, in a package that defended all plastics as green building materials. The American Forest and Paper Association (AFPA) has whittled their opposition to independently certified forestry practices down to a slogan, all wood is good wood.

Rebranding the status quo is counterproductive, even dangerous, if we believe even half of what we profess to be the urgency of the threats to our health and the planet.

In order to see through the greenwash campaigns of those who are marketing transformation while opposing the complete change that is necessary at the point of environmental and human health impact—the mines, forests, factories and communities from which our building materials come—we must do a better job of recognizing successful, transformative market initiatives like the FSC. Let's help each other do that.

In a series of occasional articles over the next six months, the Healthy Building News will profile materials transformations in the building materials market that are changing and improving environmental and human health at the point of impact. If you know of a transformative change to a building material, please let us know about it.


[1] This definition is quoted from Microsoft Word dictionary (Word 204 for Mac, Version 11.3.5). Other dictionaries describe the degree of change variously as "marked," "thorough," or "dramatic."

[2] USGBC mission statement: The U.S. Green Building Council's core purpose is to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life.

[3] At Home Depot, How Green Is That Chainsaw? By, Clifford Krauss. June 25, 2007.