What it means to be green
Learn how to sort through the enviro-friendly product hype
I walk into a hardware store and the word “green” is everywhere. There are green paints, green appliances, green flooring and green windows that scream, “Buy me if you care about the world you live in.” I see formaldehyde-free engineered wood, lumber harvested from sustainable forests, compact fluorescent light bulbs, VOC-free paint…the list goes on.
Contrary to Kermit the Frog’s lament, it is easy being green these days, so long as you can separate what’s legitimate, what’s a marketing ploy and what’s worth the cost. Just because something is labelled “green,” “environmentally friendly” or “sustainable” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a smart buy.
“Advertisers will print anything to sell a product, so you have to educate yourself and figure out if the claim comes from one small feature or if the product really is green or energy-efficient,” says Bill Crawford, chief technical adviser at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC). “There’s no national labelling program we can turn to, so look for specific claims rather than vague ones.” Since anyone can tack on the word green, use the label as an entry point, not the decisive factor in whether to buy or not.
Luckily, government and manufacturers have done some of the research for us–at least, in terms of energy efficiency. “If a window or door or appliance has an Energy Star label, you know it’s efficient,” says Crawford. Energy Star is a North America-wide program supported in Canada by the federal government’s Office of Energy Efficiency. You’ll find the label on windows, doors, lighting, ventilation fans, furnaces, fridges, skylights, light bulbs, air conditioners and household appliances.
“We’ve seen a huge demand for Energy Star-rated products over the past three years,” says Anne Wilkins, Energy Star equipment file manager for Natural Resources Canada. “And as demand increases, price goes down. Most Energy Star products cost the same or just slightly more than other products.”
They also save you money on energy bills. For example, if the windows, skylights and doors in an average home were replaced with Energy Star-rated products, household energy consumption would be reduced by about 12 per cent, slashing your energy bills and helping to cut back on greenhouse-gas emissions.
As far as Energy Star lighting goes, compact fluorescent bulbs last 10 times longer than incandescent ones, plus they use almost three times less power. “With an incandescent light, almost 85 per cent of the power used goes up in heat, so you’re paying for something you don’t need,” says Crawford.
But there’s more to think about than energy savings. “If your only concern is energy efficiency, look no further than an Energy Star label. But if you’re going for a more holistic approach that includes other factors, such as sustainability, indoor air quality and recycled content, then look for EcoLogo-branded products,” says Kevin Gallagher, vice-president of Terra Choice, a science-based environmental marketing firm that administers the EcoLogo labelling program for Environment Canada.
Unlike Energy Star, which focuses squarely on energy efficiency, the EcoLogo label considers manufacturing processes, recycled content and the chemical makeup of a product. Building materials–gypsum wallboard, hardwood flooring, adhesives, paint–as well as appliances, windows and doors, venting, and furniture are all part of the EcoLogo program.
“Green” or “environmentally friendly” certification labels appear on everything from lumber to appliances. Labels are a contentious issue. At the heart of the debate is what these claims actually mean. The best advice? Beware of vague claims, and look for official accreditation with the following labels:
- CSA (Canadian Standards Association): recycled content, energy-efficient
- CSA SFM (Sustainable Forest Management): lumber and paper from certified, sustainable forests
- EcoLogo: building materials and appliances certified for recycled content, indoor air quality, low VOCs, energy-efficient, water-efficient
- Energy Star: energy-efficient appliances, lighting and building materials
- FSC (Forest Stewardship Council): lumber and paper from certified, sustainable forests
- Greenguard: products (flooring, furniture, finishes) and appliances (furnaces, water heaters) that promote indoor air quality
- Green Label Plus: low-VOC carpets and rugs
- Green Seal: low-VOC cleaners, paint, carpet, lighting and particleboard
- Rediscovered Wood: reclaimed or recycled wood
- SFI (Sustainable Forest Initiative): lumber and paper from certified, sustainable forests