A proliferation of standards makes it hard to reach consensus on shades of green.

Consumer interest is conspiring with government initiatives to spark the green building movement as the most exciting trend now touching our industry. Not a month goes by when this magazine doesn’t report significant new developments involving our industry’s contributions toward a more sustainable environment. Here’s a quick summary of some of the notable green news stories we’ve reported in 2008 alone.

  • The National Association of Home Builders unveiled a National Green Building Standard (NGBS), developed in conjunction with the International Code Council.

  • A study from the American Institute of Architects found that more than 25% of the U.S. population now lives in counties with green building programs in place, while 14% of U.S. cities with populations of more than 50,000 have green building programs. Many more soon will follow suit.

  • The IAPMO Green Technical Committee is charged with a directive from IAPMO’s board of directors to mandate a minimum 10% reduction in energy and water use over the next three years via code changes that require sustainable construction practices.

  • The International Code Council announced in July the formation of its own Sustainable Building Technology Committee.

  • Australia’s GreenPlumbers program spawned an offshoot titled GreenPlumbersUSA. The organization offers accredited workshops around the country training plumbers in water conservation and climate care.

    This is just a small sampling of newsworthy activities taking place around our industry with the noble goal of helping all of us to live better, cleaner lives. Is it possible to find something disagreeable in all this?

    Well, this curmudgeon finds a few things not quite right with the eco-frenzy, and I’m not alone. For one thing, confusion reigns supreme with some 60 green rating systems in the U.S. Some are product-focused, like the EPA’s Energy Star and WaterSense programs, while others take a complex, systematic approach, like the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEEDS program and the home builders’ NGBS. In between are various other initiatives sparked by government agencies, trade associations, affinity groups and so on.

    With so many groups staking out shades of green, turf battles are heating up and the green movement sometimes feels more about the color of currency than ecology. And, inevitably, some green initiatives clash with economic interests. A prime example is the attempt by code and standard bodies to restrict the number of permissible showerheads, whereas their manufacturers and distributors naturally want to sell as many as possible.

    Then there’s “greenwashing,” a term coined as a takeoff on “brainwashing” to describe everyone jumping on the green bandwagon with or without a ticket. With scores of standards to choose from, manufacturers can pick around until they find at least one that enables them to slap a green label on almost any product, even though some have as much environmental impact as a window fan blowing against a hurricane.

    Moreover, the “code wars” fought over various materials for decades have their counterpart in the green era. Too many press releases trumpeting green products use as much space disparaging the green credentials of rival products as they do promoting their own features and benefits.

    Cohesion is needed over the long run, otherwise the proliferation of green standards threatens to impede progress toward truly sustainable buildings. Witness the gridlock over reconstruction of New York’s World Trade Center site, thanks to the clash of interests among dozens of government agencies and private organizations.

    I’m being realistic more than critical in pointing out these conflicts within our industry’s green movement. The fact remains many PHCP industry players are ahead of the curve and taking leadership roles in promoting a greener environment. They are producing, distributing and installing materials that common sense - if not some certifying body - tells us contribute to a more sustainable environment. They are aided in no small part by skyrocketing prices that make it imperative to satisfy public demand for products that reduce energy and water consumption.

    Many PHCP industry companies also are practicing what they preach by implementing sustainable practices throughout their own manufacturing, distribution and construction processes. Keep up, and step up, the good work.