It never fails. Hardworking experts establish an environmentally wiser answer to a basic need and give it a simple tag. Then marketers get their manicured hands on the tag and use it to lull consumers into simplistic feelings of virtue. It happened with organic food. And it seems to be happening with environmentally healthy "green" buildings.
The way a building gets to anoint itself as green is at the root of the confusion. An organization called the United States Green Building Council uses a checklist, known as LEED, to tally a hodgepodge of important but disparate factors such as construction-waste recycling. But the rating doesn't weigh overall environmental impact. So a building designed by pioneering architect William McDonough can produce almost zero waste and call itself green. But so can a building that racked up points by providing parking for shared cars. Predictably, property developers and real estate agents lay on the adjectives in ways that obscure the compromises and reduce "green" to the level of "charming."
The labels then tend to stifle debate. In the food business, Adele Douglass, who runs Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit organization whose Certified Humane label signifies that animals were well treated during food production, reports that some farmers duck behind the USDA organic guidelines. "I have been told by producers that if they're organic, they don't have to worry about the welfare [of animals] issue because consumers presume that's all taken care of."
When self-identified "greenies" accept partial solutions, how can markets grow for complete ones? For Douglass and others, the answer has been to invite customers to learn how their food arrives on their plate. Chef Dan Barber, for instance, opened a restaurant on a farm so diners can see details like the vines that produced the tomatoes in their salad.
Architects can stir similar curiosity in their clients. Rafael Pelli of Cesar Pelli & Associates says each building is a "process rather than a product." And for him and his clients, that process begins with a thorough discussion of how a building serves its users, the community, and the planet. Pelli's approach rewards creativity and invests little stock in labels. Plus, it's not buzzword-friendly. If consumers ask basic questions about their homes, such as, "Is there circulating fresh air to help me sleep?" then the decisions they make will make the air—and the terminology—noticeably clearer.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.