Say It With Me Now--"GREENBASHING"

By now, everyone has heard of "greenwashing"--a term used to describe the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly.  The new wave of anti-environmental action is more devious, and potentially more destructive.  I choose to term it "greenbashing." 

What is greenbashing? The use of seemingly reasonable arguments about catastrophic costs or unforeseen dangers to undermine progressive environmental programs.  There have been lots of examples of greenbashing lately.  Here are a few choice examples:

1.  Green roofs may spontaneously combust.  In challenging Toronto's recent mandatory green roof by-law, Don Marks, executive director of the Ontario Industrial Roofing Contractors Association, warns that

“I don’t believe that the insurance industry has caught up with the increased risk of fire that may result from improperly maintained green roofs...”

According to engineer Rob Diemer, partner with AKF Engineering, this threat does not comport with reality:

This is a new technology and the codes, insurance companies, underwriters and testing agencies are just now catching up. From what I have seen, we should see code language and testing protocols dealing with wind uplift and fire hazard for green roofing in the near future. In the mean time I think the fire hazards are minimal and depend a lot on the type of roof and plants used.


On an extensive roof using shallow, lightweight, mineral based growing medium and sedum plants, there is probably little or no fire hazard. Even if the plants should die due to a prolonged drought, the fuel load of the dead plants is minimal and it is likely that any fire would rapidly consume the plants and die out before damaging the building structure. Intensive roofs using deeper growing medium and larger plants may provide a larger potential fuel base; however, most of these roofs need to be irrigated which would tend to mitigate the fire hazard due to drought induced plant death. As with all things in life there are no guarantees; however, it would appear that the potential fire hazard of green roofs is more than outweighed by the many positive benefits they provide.

2. A national energy efficiency code will catastrophically increase housing prices.  The National Association of Home Builders issued a press release on June 29 regarding the national energy efficiency provisions of Waxman-Markey that Chris Cheatham and I discussed here in our Green Building Guide to Waxman-Markey.  According to the NAHB, requiring increased energy efficiency will have catastrophic effects on affordable housing:

The market is not geared up to supply the necessary materials and equipment, and that's going to drive up costs. The result will be fewer working-class families in these new energy-efficient homes. They'll be relegated to older, less efficient housing stock and face ever higher utility bills.

In addition, a national energy efficiency code would apparently impede regional sustainability considerations: 

Usurping states' rights to determine appropriate building efficiency for homes and buildings within their jurisdiction would result in ineffective application of efficiency standards to address varying climate zones and specific needs, he added.

The reality of the situation is, of course, that builders benefit from lack of regulation. Currently,  thirteen states have no statewide commercial building codes, and fourteen states have no statewide residential building code.  A national energy efficiency building code would impose regulations where none existed before, or more stringent regulations in jurisdictions with lagging codes.  The result might be higher costs of construction--but of course lower cost of ownership of homes in the long term.  

3.  A National Energy Efficiency building code will require huge new federal bureaucracy.  Our friends over at Sullivan Kreiss  reprinted a letter that the International Council of Shopping Centers sent to its members warning of the dangers of a national energy efficiency building code: 

The cost and complexity of this federal takeover of state and local building codes forced ICSC to oppose the overall bill. The specific efficiency targets are too aggressive and the deadlines are too short. In addition, there is no trained inspection force to oversee a national building code, so it will require the federal government to retrain state employees and, no doubt, hire a huge number of new inspectors. Supporters of this new federal program simply refused to negotiate or compromise on the language. As a result, ICSC does not support this provision.

Of course, the way that Section 201 is written, building codes will be drafted and implemented by code councils and the states/local governments in the same way they are now, unless those entities fail to develop codes that meet the Waxman-Markey efficiency standards.  Also, the ICSC letter fails to identify how retraining code official in energy efficiency and creating additional green jobs enforcing an energy efficiency code would be a bad thing.  

Greenbashing would be a rational approach to protect vested interests if there was vested interest to protect.  However, according to the Census Bureau, new housing starts in May were down over 45% from 2008 and shopping centers are being decimated as well.  Instead, these groups could embrace sustainable programs to create new demand for their products, and to help the climate crisis which will effect us all. 

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Comments (4) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Sara Sweeney - July 13, 2009 4:03 PM

Excellent post and poignant points Shari. When you tweeted me yesterday about the green roof combustibility issue, my first reaction was 'say what?!' In essence, a scare tactic statement at the general level (in my opinion), although a possible point to consider if the vegetated roof will be located in a dry, arid area, and/or subject to the notorious Santa Ana Winds. Rob Deimer's commentary in this post is right on target as well, in terms of fuel source and more. Then there is also the issue of the type of green roof, which Rob also addresses in stating that more intensive vegetated roofs would be irrigated.

I am also seeing evidence of this greenbashing cropping up (you and Chris Cheatham are on top of the new terminology for the age of sustainability). We in the sustaianble field need to be mindful of this, and also be prepared to offer sound and thoughtful opinions in response. I am glad you are starting to address this topic via this post. I also think this would be an excellent topic for a GreenBuild forum for GB 2010 too. Hint, hint.

Stephen Del Percio - July 13, 2009 10:38 PM

With respect to your third point, I think it's important to note that the ICSC comments echo those in the NAIOP study from earlier this year which concluded that 30 to 50 percent improvements over ASHRAE 90.1 would be difficult for most types of commercial buildings in the country absent significant financial incentives from state and local governments given current technologies.

Marshall Leslie - July 14, 2009 12:47 PM

On May 27th, 2009 Toronto City Council passed a "By-law to Require and Govern the Construction of Green Roofs in Toronto". In its report Council also required ....

"11. City Council direct the Chief Building Official and Executive Director, Toronto Building to bring forward any proposed technical updates to the Toronto Green Roof Construction Standard following the American National Standards Institute adoption of fire and wind uplift standards and after consultation with the Technical Advisory Group" ....

The Ontario Industrial Roofing Contractors Association (OIRCA) has been invited to be a member of the Technical Advisory Group. Since the American National Standards Institute has not yet adopted anything dealing with the issue of fire, the remarks of the executive director of the OIRCA concerning roof maintenance to a local trade newspaper, on an issue that he has been given a charge by the authority with jurisdiction should be taken as they are uttered. Nowhere in the body of the newspaper article is there any reference made to "spontaneous combustion" those are your (inflated) words.

Christopher Hill - July 15, 2009 8:27 AM


While generalizations and "greenbashing" are not valid argumentation techniques, we can't be blind to some of the liability and other issues swirling around this new technology and the new standards. My hope is that the debate from both sides will remain rational and that, therefore, the move to sustainability will continue.

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