Green Building Blog: The Meaning of Green

About the author: Ken Sandler is Co-Chair of EPA’s Green Building Workgroup. He has worked for EPA since 1991 on sustainability issues including green building, recycling, and indoor air quality. Find out more about EPA’s green building programs at

Photo of Ken Sandler standing on mountainSo what does it really mean to be green?

That may sound like one of those dreaded philosophical questions you have to ask of a white-bearded guru sitting cross-legged and barefoot on a mountaintop.

But as green becomes the hottest marketing term around, you do have to ask what it means. As everyone from your dry-cleaner to your gas station tries to convince you that they’re the greenest, how do you know who is and who isn’t?

The Federal Trade Commission, which monitors marketing claims, is looking into this issue as it updates its “Green Guides” . But the answers are not always as straightforward as we might like.

In my area of expertise, green building, EPA is considering how we can help this field better define itself. Here are a few of the questions we’re grappling with:

1) Essential components: The popular green building rating systems in the marketplace provide great flexibility to trade off among many strategies, from low-flow toilets to low-emitting paints. But are there any elements so essential that they shouldn’t be traded off – like energy efficiency?
2) Levels of green: A related question is how far you need to go to be called green – for instance, if a company changes its light bulbs to more efficient compact fluorescents, but does nothing to improve its inefficient heating and cooling system – how green can it really claim to be?
3) Lifecycle impacts: One of the most complicated exercises in the sustainability field is life cycle analysis (LCA). An LCA is the Herculean task of comparing the environmental and health impacts of a product throughout its “life” – say, from when trees are cut down or metals mined, through manufacturing and use, to ultimate disposal. An incredible challenge – and yet how can we know what’s truly greenest until we figure out how to do this type of analysis effectively?
4) Maintaining green: Finally, how long will the building or product remain green, and what maintenance will it need to keep that nice green glow from fading?

Maybe some day all of the answers will be easy to find. In the meantime, when you hear green claims, make sure to ask a lot of questions, compare and contrast products, and request as much background information as possible.

But please don’t attempt to climb any treacherous mountains looking for green gurus. No need, actually – these days, most gurus have email.