Is LEED Greenwash?

Mon Aug 22, 2011 1:15am EDT

Jennifer Kaplan

According to Environmental Leader yesterday the U.S. District Court in New York City dismissed a lawsuit charging the U.S. Green Building Council with false advertising over its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

This is such an interesting case because it speaks to the heart of the perennial question: What is greenwash? Generally, greenwash applies when the following can be said about a company or organization's green claims:

- No meaningful or verifiable criteria

- Not consistent, clear or transparent

- Not independent or protected from conflict of interest

- Does not provide opportunities for public comment

LEED seems clear on all the above counts. But, doesn't it really comes down to whether LEED allows building owners to exaggerate their environmental achievements.

As an outspoken opponent of greenwash, I have struggled with LEED for some time. LEED is a certification process that provides benchmarks rather than a set of standards. Developers and building owners pick and choose from a laundry list of greening strategies to reach a green building design that aggregates green standards. As a result, it is true that LEED certification can actually be achieved even in the complete absence of, for example, important energy efficiencies. This loophole remains a major criticism of the LEED program. Additionally, separate LEED ratings systems exist for different building types, so the benchmarks vary depending on your building use and whether you are building from scratch or renovating an existing space.

And, while I agree with the U.S. District Court in New York City, that LEED does not qualify for greenwash, for small projects and therefore small businesses, it is often not feasible (mostly because of the expense and entrenched monitoring requirements) to apply for LEED certification. And, because only large budgets can accommodate the certification process, I do believe this makes LEED unfair and biased. But, truth be told, even if a building cannot afford to follow individual LEED criteria, LEED raises the bar for us all. LEED is important because it provides motivation to achieve the intent of greening - even without the certification itself. For that LEED is a wonderful tool. In the end, I believe that LEED promotes sustainable building practices and is not about promoting exaggerated environmental achievements. And since LEED's approach is holistic-and not just eye candy-I think its fair to say it is therefore legitimate. But, there's clearly room for improvement.

Photo by Wonderlane/flickr/Creative Commons

Reprinted with permission from Ecopreneurist

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Comments (3)
radice wrote:
The problem with LEED is political. The rating system allows companies like Georgia Pacific, owned by Koch Industries to tout certain products (ie “Densglas”) as LEED-certified. It’s almost impossible to step on a construction site without tripping over a GP product. Koch Industries then can take their profits and lobby against the EPA, clean air legislation, carbon emission controls, etc – effectively negating the benefits of LEED. LEED is, after all designed primarily to conserve energy and reduce carbon emissions. So companies like Koch Industries can pretend to support environmental preservation all the while undermining it. The true greenwash.

Aug 22, 2011 7:06pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
NewellP-S wrote:
Having worked on higher education projects that pursued LEED certification, I know it is an important shorthand for large and complex organizations that need to assure constituents that sustainability is being taken into consideration. LEED is a helpful starting place for the conversation, but should be taken as a bare minimum for those who really cared about energy efficiency and sustainability. For residential projects, and others who don’t need to show off a plaque or certification, the best bet is to find a builder with experience in these areas and pick up some of the literature on net zero energy efficiency projects. Newell Pledger-Shinn, www.hardwicpkostandbeam.com

Aug 23, 2011 4:20pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
As the author of this piece, I’d like to say that Radice brings up an excellent point that I hadn’t thought of. While LEED may not be greenwash, many of the products that help buildings qualify for LEED certification are in deed guilty of greenwash.

And, also, NewellP-S is spot on that ‘LEED is a helpful starting place for the conversation, but should be taken as a bare minimum for those who really cared about energy efficiency and sustainability.’

Thanks for furthering the conversation.

Aug 24, 2011 1:55pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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