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Posted by Chaya Kurtz | G+ | Mar 03, 2011

Practical Sustainability Takes on Greenwashing

John Brown, founder of the Slow Home movement, discusses the fundamentals of building and living in a greener house.

Is this house green, or is it greenwashing?  Photo: Gabriel Amadeus/FlickrBy John Brown, founder of the Slow Home Movement

Is there anybody out there who doesn’t have at least some idea that our single family houses have a supersized environmental footprint? After all, the statistics speak for themselves.  According to David Suzuki’s Green Guide, building and operating our houses account for 70% of the nation’s electricity consumption, 35% of greenhouse gas emissions, and 30% of landfill waste. The situation becomes even more severe when we consider the significant environmental costs associated with all of the commuting that most of us have to do each day to get to and from these houses.

The housing industry certainly knows that we are concerned about this issue. Everywhere you turn there seems to be someone telling you how green their model homes, building products or construction services are. In fact, green has become the newest, and hottest, marketing buzzword in the housing industry.  Everything from new residential projects to building materials, mechanical equipment, finishes, fixtures, and furniture is being sold under the big green banner. Too often, however, these claims are little more than "green wash," clever marketing campaigns intended to separate us from our hard earned money without making any substantial difference to the environment. Unfortunately, most of us can’t tell the difference between this green marketing hype and real sustainability and, like the proverbial little old lady who visits the unscrupulous used car lot we can end up spending too much money on false promises.

Companies who employ these green wash marketing techniques are part of what I call the fast housing industry.  Like fast food companies, they’re more interested in their own short term gain than the long term health of either their customers or the planet.  In the world of fast food, words like "organic," "local," and "fresh" are too often reduced to advertising copy intended to distract us from thinking about how unhealthy the high fat, high salt, and high sugar content of their fast food meals actually is. In much the same way, the, what I call, "environmental bling" of low flow toilets, solar panels, and bamboo flooring can be used to distract us from the fact that the house we are considering is actually improperly oriented to the sun, too large for our needs, and located too great a distance from where we work, shop, and play to actually be very sustainable.

The Slow Food Movement offers an effective form of resistance to the dangers of processed food. It educates people about the simple rules that they can follow in order to eat food that is good, clean and fair. Similarly, the Slow Home Movement that I co-founded with Matthew North and Carina van Olm offers design information and educational programs that you can use to help make sure your home is simple and light. We call our approach Practical Sustainability and the goal is to translate complex environmental issues and choices into an easy to understand format that you can use to make better, smarter decisions about where and how you live. Practical Sustainability is about unbiased, no nonsense, plain-speaking information that is pertinent and useful to homeowners interested in reducing their home’s environmental footprint.

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