Greenwashing and Concrete

Greenwashing, a term coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld back in 1986, is used to describe the practice of misleading the consumer regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.  It is a term that merges the concepts of “green”, or environmentally sound, and “whitewashing”, to conceal or gloss over wrongdoing. Greenwashing can encompass any form of public relations or marketing that links corporate, political, religious or nonprofit organizations to a positive association with environmental issues for an unsustainable product, service or practice.

For our purposes here, I will focus primarily on how this relates to the products and services we deal with on a daily basis in the green building industry, and how best to protect ourselves from the greenwashing we see from companies looking to peddle the idea of green just to make an extra buck. It would be nice to see these companies spending their more money on developing environmentally sound practices rather than on advertising and marketing. I hope the practice of just putting a leaf or a tree on a bottle of harmful chemicals and calling it green will soon be a part of the past.

As I mentioned in a previous article (Embodied energy vs. recycled content), isolating what it means to be environmentally friendly is not easy. While it is a wonderful thing to use recycled content in your products, recycling alone does not mean that something is environmentally advantageous. The key element is to reduce the amount of energy that is used in making these products. Embodied energy is an accounting methodology which aims to find the sum total of the energy necessary for an entire product lifecycle. This lifecycle includes raw material extraction, transport, manufacture, assembly, installation, disassembly, deconstruction and/or decomposition.  This is the direction the government is taking as well. Both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have recently adopted new and enforceable standards that will effectively regulate and fine greenwashers.

As our building codes start to become more stringent, companies that manufacture products, agencies who specify these products, and the builders themselves will need to become more proactive on the speed at which we change. An example would be the very prolific LEED program, which in its most recent form has altered its prior focus on recycled content and the use of natural resources, to a greater emphasis on energy efficiency. 

Industry standards and State and Federal Mandates are also changing rapidly, pushed by the administration’s goal of a carbon neutral earth by 2050. These rapidly changing standards are just the tip of a melting iceberg, with current ASTM and ISO moving quickly on Life Cycle regulations and sustainability. Data collection and proof of meeting green qualifications are now becoming commonplace requirements, with organizations such as “The Green Standard” putting out definable information: “In today’s increasingly sophisticated marketplace, it is no longer sufficient for the manufacturer to make claims that are not certified to a transparent standard with the results verified by a third party. More and more, specifiers and purchasers are expecting the credibility and transparency that is best provided by an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) based on product lifecycle assessment. ”

Mandates regarding the regulation of Greenhouse emissions are on the rise on both a national, regional and worldwide level, with congress now being required to enact a comprehensive and effective national program of mandatory limits and incentives on emissions of greenhouse gases that slow, stop, and reverse the growth of such emissions. Nearly every state has an emissions reduction goal, i.e. 20% by 2020.

In December of 2007, delegates from over 180 countries met at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia. At the conference, developing countries agreed for the first time to consider taking “measurable, reportable and verifiable” mitigation actions, and developed countries agreed to provide technological and financial support for those actions.


Since concrete happens to be the most widely used and prolific building material worldwide, let’s look a little closer environmental qualities.  As regulations on emissions for all industries start to tighten, government  agencies will start to pursue to largest offenders and work their way down. In the process, more and more people are now gaining awareness of just how bad an eco offender concrete is. Cement production alone is responsible for between 5 and 8 percent of all the CO2 produced in the world, and that is a gigantic portion.  Since concrete has always been seen as an eco-friendly building product, this new awareness will affect how companies proceed in processing, manufacturing, packaging and selling concrete products. Is concrete part of this whole greenwashing dilemma??? I happen to believe it is…which leads me to a fresh idea.

If you accept that the concept of “Green” is really about reducing the amount of energy used in the process of manufacturing, and not on recycled content of a product (see my last article), companies in the concrete industry may be pulling the wool over the consumers eyes. 

Here’s a scenario for you to chew on.  Say a large and very well known company is selling a bagged concrete product to a very large national distributor (use your imagination), and they brand it with green ink and declare on the bag that it has a high percentage of recycled content. The manufacturer is clearly stating to the public that this is a green product. Now let’s say that in formulating their sack of green, recycled content concrete they actually have to use MORE cement in their mix to compensate for the use of the weaker recycled aggregate. What does that do to the actual product, you ask? Here is the simple math: over 92% of all the energy used in filling that bag comes from only 15% of its content (cement). Depending on the amount of cement increase used to compensate, a HIGHER amount of CO2 is used to make their Eco-friendly mix! 

That’s greenwashing, folks.  So it’s actually better to buy their regular concrete and if you want to do something better for the environment. As a manufacturer and liscencee of verifiable green concrete I have little tolerance for this type of marketing. Make money AND do the right thing, now that’s a novel concept. Our hats are off to Buddy Rhodes Concrete.

To finish, I would like to quote some information presented by a marketing firm named TerraChoice back in December of 2007.  Called  the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” it’s still the best guideline to date on how to isolate false or misleading green marketing claims. They found that more than 99% of 1,018 common consumer products commonly surveyed for the study were guilty of greenwashing. Out of the 1018 studied only one was found not guilty of making a false or misleading green marketing claims. WOW! You will find the list of sins below. 

Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: e.g. Energy-efficient” electronics that contain hazardous materials. 998 products and 57% of all environmental claims committed this Sin.

Sin of No Proof: e.g. Shampoos claiming to be “certified organic,” but no verifiable certification. 454 products and 26% of environmental claims committed this Sin.

Sin of Vagueness: e.g. Products claiming to be 100% natural when many naturally-occurring substances are hazardous, like arsenic and formaldehyde (see appeal to nature).  Seen in 196 products or 11% of environmental claims.

Sin of Irrelevance: e.g. Products claiming to be CFC-free, even though CFCs were banned 20 years ago. This Sin was seen in 78 products and 4% of environmental claims.

Sin of Fibbing: e.g. Products falsely claiming to be certified by an internationally recognized environmental standard like EcoLogo, Energy Star or Green Seal. Found in 10 products or less than 1% of environmental claims.

Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: e.g. Organic cigarettes or “environmentally friendly” pesticides, This occurred in 17 products or 1% of environmental claims.

The Sin of Worshiping False Labels is committed by a product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement actually exists; fake labels, in other words.

Probably the most important tool you can use to distinguish between a legitimately “Green” product and a greenwasher is common sense. Attempt to educate yourself on some of the finer points to look out for, like legitimate seals, scientific data, embodied energy, etc. but know that based on percentages, you will and probably do buy products that sell themselves as green but aren’t. I’m such a cynic!  

Now CEO of Clean Concrete Technologies, Jim Glessner has nearly 30 years experience on the sustainable side of the concrete construction industry.

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