Mood board of sustainable home concepts for an Australian heritage workers cottage

Dodging the Greenwashing: How to Buy Truly Sustainable Building and Design Supplies

It really irks me when a company deliberately tries to mislead me into believing their product is sourced or manufactured more sustainably than it actually is. This is known as greenwashing and it happens all the time in architecture and building. Companies know that many of us prefer environmentally friendly products and we’re willing to pay more for them. They’re basically taking advantage of our desire to do better.

Unfortunately, the price of avoiding greenwashing is eternal vigilance. When you’re making important purchasing decisions, never take a website claim for granted, don’t assume green logos mean it’s truly green, and always enquire into the provenance of a product someone’s spruiking.

You need to be especially vigilant with these 6 common materials. Thanks to Denby Dowling, my interior designer, for helping me compile this information. And please – if you’re reading this and you think our research might have led us down the garden path and we’ve reached the wrong conclusion, let me know! I certainly don’t think I have all the answers, I’m just trying to do the best I can.

6 commonly greenwashed building materials

 

1. Concrete 

Concrete is often touted as a green material (I don’t know why?), but the cement industry is actually one of the top producers of carbon dioxide on the planet. This one industry emits up to eight percent of the world’s greenhouse gases.

2. Bamboo

Bamboo can be a green, renewable building product, but only if it’s carefully and locally sourced and processed. Often bamboo is grown with toxic fertilisers and pesticides and coated with formaldehyde finishes. If you’re not based in Asia, it’s likely imported. Bamboo has also been linked to Asian forest-clearing, which harms biodiversity.

3. Ceramic tiles

Ceramic tiles can be safe and sustainable, but sometimes they are made with toxic additives and glazes that contain heavy metals. In the US, many shuttered tile factories are now classified as Superfunds1, requiring extensive environmental remediation due to their poor handling of hazardous waste. In Australia we only have one local manufacturer, so if you are using tiles in Oz it will most likely be from overseas, so make sure you look out for these certifications:

  1. greensquaredcertified.com for tiles from the US; and 
  2. ecolabel.eu for European-made tiles     
Moodboard of sustainable products that may be greenwashing.
This is another example of an image board prepared by Denby Dowling which shows some of the sustainable product ideas for the Impossible House.

4. Wood

Is someone trying to sell you “sustainably sourced” Australian hardwood? It does exist, but it’s rare. Guess why? There’s not a ton of hardwood in Australia. Double-check the legitimacy of any timber supplier. (We like the certified supplier WoodSolutions.)

For those contemplating external cladding, I am using Shadowclad or Weathertex products, made from New Zealand plantation timbers. With their supply chain they’re able to seek chain of custody verification of the source of these timbers through Forest Stewardship Council or other certification systems. While these materials would all be considered new, they are from a sustainably managed, renewable resource which also sequesters carbon into the building fabric.

5. Hardware 

Suppliers of things like door handles and tap fittings often pass their product off as “green.” Check their sourcing, because a lot of metals aren’t sustainably mined or processed. Brass often rates as truly sustainable, and recycled brass is even better. 

We’re outfitting my bathroom and kitchen with Australian designed tapware from Sussex Taps, who use recycled brass, procured and refurbished in a responsible manner.

6. Paints, stains, and fabrics

Suppliers of these products are some of the worst offenders for labelling a product sustainable when it isn’t. Textile manufacturing is the second-largest water-polluting industry in the world, after agriculture.

Paints often contain toxic additives, such as formaldehyde, and they release harmful chemicals called VOCs (volatile organic compounds) during the drying process. This is why paint fumes cause headaches and allergic reactions, and house and furniture painters have a higher risk of cancer than the general population. VOCs also contribute to ozone in the atmosphere, a highly toxic pollutant that attacks lung tissue.

Also be aware that the descriptor “natural” can be misleading when it comes to paints and stains. Not all naturally sourced products are manufactured in a less toxic way. (This article gives a good run-down of what to look for with paints and stains.)

In fact, with any product, watch out for vague or irrelevant terms like “no CFCs”, “LEED-certified”, “toxin-free”, “chemical-free” or “all natural”. CFCs were banned in Australia in 1995 for starters, and all these other terms are entirely subjective, because they have no legal definition.

 

What’s next?

So, that’s probably enough look-outs for one blog. Ready for some more positive tips on being authentically eco? My next blog, “My Top 10 Ways to Source Sustainable Materials for Your Green Home” will be ready soon.

¹ What is Superfund? Thousands of contaminated sites exist nationally due to hazardous waste being dumped, left out in the open, or otherwise improperly managed. These sites include manufacturing facilities, processing plants, landfills and mining sites.