How Can I Tell if It's Truly Green?

A guide to evaluating products, appliances and professionals

Green home improvement options seem to be multiplying lately, and it isn’t always clear how much you’re actually helping the planet and yourself with the choices you make. Just as “organic” and “healthy” are finding their way into every corner of the supermarket, building products and fixtures can easily be “greenwashed,” with their true value hidden behind big prices and even bigger claims.

If you’re planning to purchase a home improvement-related product, undertake a remodeling project or build a new home, and want to ensure it is environmentally friendly, this guide will show you how to look beneath the marketing to determine if a product, appliance, material or building professional is truly green.

How Can I Tell If It's Truly Green?What makes it green?
So, what actually makes a product green? Start by considering the basics ─ the raw materials that go into that product and where they come from, remembering that long-distance transport brings other precious resources into the equation. Then look at the adhesives, coatings and finishes used to make that product viable, and whether or not the manufacturing process leads to release of harmful substances.

What else? Consider product packaging, how the product is transported to a store near you, and the likelihood that it’ll release VOCs (volatile organic compounds) into your home environment during and after installation.

A product’s afterlife is also a factor in determining greenness: just as there are benefits to selecting a product made from sustainable ingredients, you need to know that those ingredients can be recycled, reclaimed or repurposed when the product’s time with you is over. All good things come to an end, and when that happens -- a green one is preferred.

Certifications for people, products and homes
In our increasingly green world, there are guidelines to assure that the pros, practices and products we’re dealing with meet sustainability standards.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made shopping easier by establishing two programs to certify products for home improvement projects: Energy Star and WaterSense. The Energy Star label is granted to products that meet energy efficiency requirements while delivering the features and performance consumers expect, and can be spotted on windows, appliances of all sizes, electronics and even building materials like roofing and insulation. WaterSense labeling is a more recent development, calling consumer attention to plumbing fixtures and landscape irrigation systems that offer high performance but are 20 percent more efficient than average products in their categories.

How Can I Tell If It's Truly Green?National and international green building standards certify remodeling professionals and the spaces that they create. Just remember that, unlike state-by-state building codes which must be followed for basic safety and structural integrity, green building standards are optional ─ a personal choice in your approach to remodeling.

The internationally recognized green building certification system for buildings and building professionals is LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED standards guide measurable elements of green building design and construction, along with operations and maintenance strategies, and LEED certification and ranking (at such levels as silver, gold and platinum) form a major point of pride and promotion in new builds.

Pros pursue LEED credentials for themselves as well, which tell their clients they’ve achieved a particular level of professional excellence where green design, building and processes are concerned. If your major remodeling project includes green priorities, look for LEED certification in the design and construction professionals you employ.

By following these guidelines when hiring professionals and purchasing products for your home improvement projects, you can make your selections with confidence, knowing that you are able to distinguish between the merely “greenwashed” and the truly green.

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