Greenwashing in the built industry

greenwashingWhat is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization’s products, aims and/or policies are environmentally friendly (More info here). Basically, the company tells you the product they are peddling is environmentally friendly, but it really isn’t.

Greenwashing is common for many products. The phenomenon is so rampant across all industries that there are tools to facilitate the rating of green washedness of a particular product and share it online [2-5].

Is greenwashing prevalent in the built industry?

We have established that dubious claims of environmentally friendliness is a trend across industries. Let us now focus on the built industry, and how urban greenery, supposedly the greenest of green products, can still be subjected to green wash tactics.

To understand the problem, we have to define the function of greenery in the built environment. Generally speaking, greenery can:

1. Reduce temperature

2. Clean the air

3. Promote bio-diversity

4. Reduce carbon footprint

Wah, miracle drug alert. These are the attributes of greenery that can help improve the urban environment. They are also the most common catchphrases overheard during trade shows.

If the environment can be improved just by adding greenery, then under what circumstances does it constitute greenwashing?

From our research, we have identified 2 ways urban greenery washing can happen. The underlying difference is fundamentally determined by how much air there is between the ears of the executive. They are:

1. Direct ways of green washing

2. Indirect ways of green washing

Direct ways of green washing

We have encountered several instances in which direct ways of green washing can be observed (fake plants, etc), but the following is really the crème de la crème of greenwashing.  Figures 1 and 3 show attempts to promote greenery by literally painting stuff green. A seriously flawed approach, which probably stemmed from the assumption that the colour green is good enough to better the environment (WTF?). This is very close to what Dr Ian Malcom, noted mathematician from the University of Texas, once described as:

“…the worst idea in the long, sad history of bad ideas…”

Needless to say, these are the Olympic gold medallists of greenwashing. Why are they doing this? Let us give them the benefit of the doubt by saying they are good intentions to do the right thing, but were somehow terribly misinformed with regards to the proper methodology.
Indirect ways of green washing

It’s probably safe to say that the National Parks Board of Singapore will not be spraying Bukit Timah hill green anytime soon. With a well-education populace and responsible (corporate) governance, we can expect such examples to never occur in a country like ours. However, from our studies, we have identified how greenwashing can still occur in subtle ways. Very often, the carbon footprint generated is much larger than what the implemented greenery can reduce.

Consider 2 hypothetical scenarios where indirect green washing can occur:

Example 1:

Designer specs for green wall inside building. As lighting conditions are inadequate for plant growth, supplementary growth lights are installed. They are activated 9 hrs a day. This runs up the electricity tab and building facilities management incurs additional cost. This also increases the carbon footprint of the entire green wall setup.

Example 2:

Designer specs green roof with turfing only. Due to design aesthetics, there are no shrubs, no trees. As there is very little provision for cooling due to shade and evapotranspiration (turf offers very little shade and cooling via evapotranspiration), the reduction in heat gain for roof is minimal. Additional cost is incurred for maintaining the green roof. As there is no foliage, promotion of bio-diversity is minimal. There are no birds and bees, just lots of earthworms.

Both examples are celebrated for their efforts in promoting urban greenery.

These 2 examples show how easy it is for the idea of championing greenery in the urban landscape to end up causing more harm to the environment. It suffices to say that this indirect manner of green washing can be seen as merely a more sophisticated manner of spraying the building green. Of course, since the effects are not measured, they are often overlooked.

Admittedly, it is very hard for designers to realise the impact of their intervention if they do not first acquire fundamental knowledge on how best to implement greenery in their design. This is one of the reasons for setting up this website. We hope to introduce basic concepts to architects and designers to aid in their design process, so as to minimise greenwashing in any manner (Figure 2).

If you suspect your design decisions are indirectly contributing to greenwashing, you can email us for more information specific to your project. Advice is free, until you ask too many questions.

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