10 April 2014 — Just as the original Trojan horse was made of wood, so too is the leverage the Green Building Institute, promoter of the Green Globes rating system, has used to undermine the use of the US Green Building Council’s LEED ratings system by government funded projects in the United States.
A major lobbying push by the alternative rating system – which has a board featuring members from chemical companies, lobbyists for the vinyl industry, firms involved with the Keystone XL Pipeline project and nuclear industry, and major players in the timber industry – has seen the use of LEED effectively barred for government projects in five states.
According to Sierra Club activist and Greenwash Action co-founder Jason Grant, this is purely about profit motives for the industry groups behind the GBI and Green Globes, and as he explained to The Fifth Estate, the risk this kind of political power struggle poses is to derail efforts to effectively deal with the immediate threats of climate change.
Timber – the thin edge of the wedge
The obvious bone of contention the lobbyists have focused their energy on is timber rating schemes, which is one of Mr Grant’s fields of expertise as a Forest Stewardship Council chain-of-custody auditor for Scientific Certification Systems, LEED Practitioner, LEEDuser certified wood expert and consultant on green wood procurement.
LEED only gives credit for projects using FSC-certified timber. Green Globes allows the use of three other competing timber certification systems, including the Sustainable Forest Initiative, which was created by the timber industry. SFI allows for larger areas of clear-felling, greater use of herbicides and a plantation (monoculture) approach to growing and harvesting trees.
While the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defence Council and other environmental groups support the FSC standard, which is also used in Australia, they do not support the SFI standard.
To date, five US mainland states – Maine, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia and Ohio – have banned the issuing of contracts for state buildings to projects being rated by any system which does not treat all timber certification systems as equal, which LEED doesn’t as it only gives credit for FSC-certified timber. Ironically, that timber is only worth a single point out of 100 in the LEED rating system, but in the big picture the LEED system has become so broadly accepted by the US Government that many industry groups are in fight-back mode and timber is the rallying point.
So it’s not an outright ban on LEED per se, but it is an attempt to give lower sustainability standards greater credibility than LEED in terms of State government projects, and potentially an attempt to force LEED to lower its standards on sustainability, or face loss of contracts for architects, builders and engineers who want to use the LEED system. A kind of “fall into line or fall by the wayside” tactic.
Essentially, the timber credit is being used as a lever to roll back sustainability momentum, giving key industries a means of continuing to promote their interests while appearing green.
State projects using Green Globes instead of LEED are able to achieve certification without the need to disclose “chemicals of concern”, have no requirements in terms of PVC and are able to gain the badge for their project by following a certification process that relies on web-based self-assessment and one site visit by a Green Globes auditor.
Documents obtained by Building Green under Freedom of Information outline the key stakeholders behind Green Globes, and how they have steadily lobbied the US Government and state legislatures to legislate so only rating systems that treat all forest certification systems as equivalent can be applied to federal projects.
In its report on the results of their investigations, Building Green outlined part of the lengthy and detailed process of lobbying and undermining of LEED by GBI and other key figures involved in promoting Green Globes. For example:
“Erin Shaffer, vice president for federal outreach at GBI, urged decision-makers at the Department of the Interior (DOI) to comment in GBI’s favor during a crucial federal rulemaking period. In 2009, [the Department of Environment] intended to codify an earlier GSA recommendation of LEED certification for federal buildings.
“Is there any chance that Interior will weigh in on this so that the federal government is not supporting ONE BRAND?” Shaffer wrote to three US Department of Interior (DOI) officials on April 21, 2009. “Let me know if there is any information I can help to provide.” The email goes on to criticize the study that was used to recommend LEED as the preferred certification system. “We are very hopeful that you will weigh in and call for a different approach…” The subject of this email (“FW: DOE Proposed NOD for LEED”) references a “notice of determination” put out by DOE to solicit comments from other agencies.
Further details of how Shaffer continued to lobby officials on behalf of GBI and undermine LEED were revealed later in the article:
Emails from DOI [Department of the Interior] and HHS suggest that GBI’s Shaffer strategically identified, contacted, and attempted to influence officials responsible for agency policies, including those in a position to contribute to federal rulemaking. Shaffer’s own Strategic Advocacy Solutions website reflect these intentions, stating that she is a “lead advocate supporting federal policies that encourage competition in the green building market place.” It also claims she “initiated all policy strategic development for GBI at the federal level,” and that the “results of this effort are reflected in the federal agency sustainability policies.”
Sustainability in fight back mode
Greenwash Action is a newly formed organisation set up by the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and concerned individuals and activists to tackle the issue of industry front organisations and their potential to derail progress towards sustainability.
Speaking by phone from his base in California, Mr Grant told The Fifth Estate the new organisation would work to shift the terms of the debate about ratings.
“What we are trying to tell the special interests and the top Green Globes people is we are running out of time. According to the latest reports from the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] we have about five years to reduce carbon, and we need to get to zero carbon by 2080 to avoid runaway, irreversible, catastrophic climate change,” Mr Grant said.
“We’re all in this together and it is time to put the collective interest ahead of narrow self-interest. We need to stop fighting over whether the bar should be ‘here’ or ‘here’ as that is a waste of energy.”
Mr Grant said there were two key points Greenwash Action would be making – firmly and strongly – to industry front groups.
“One, cease the attacks – stop attacking the leadership standard; and, two, tell the truth. Either improve your own standards so they are equivalent [to LEED] or stop claiming LEED is [flawed] and reposition your standard as an entry-level standard. Don’t try and take the pie – grow the pie,” Mr Grant said.
“We want a truce, so we can co-exist and find common ground, and [develop] common-sense solutions to the problems we all face. We want to take all the energy [going into attacks] and do something all generations will thanks us for – if we can all grow up and do it.”
Where it all began
Mr Grant said the roots of the current situation went back to 2003 when timber, chemical and plastics industry groups formed a collation called the North American Green Building Coalition, with the assistance of Ward Hubble, a former vice president of timber company Louisiana Pacific, PR expert and lobbyist – someone whom Mr Grant described as an “astroturfing specialist”. Under Mr Hubble’s guidance, NAGBC became the “brains trust” for the Green Building Initiative, which administers the Green Globes, and GBI was co-located at Mr Hubble’s offices in Oregon.
The GBI recently moved out of that office, and Mr Hubble stepped down from being president of the organisation, and was replaced by Jerry Yudelson.
While this strengthens the organisation’s credentials on the surface, the ongoing lobbying on behalf of timber, plastic and chemical interests to dilute green rating tools and allow greater latitude for questionable materials gives industry watchers, – including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and sustainability advocates – no certainty the organisation itself has changed.
Mr Grant believes one of the key reasons for industry groups to attack the FSC and LEED systems is “environmental groups had a big hand in developing the standards, and [industry] does not control [the standards]”.
“That’s the greenwash playbook,” he said.
“If we [industry] can’t control it, we’ll invent our own, adopt the language and set up governance structures that look like the [environmentalist-backed] systems. Then we’ll confuse the market and play hardball and force people to use the [industry-developed] standard.”
One of the selling points for Green Globes is it is cost-competitive with LEED, and easier to achieve a rating as it is web-based and has a substantial self-assessment element.
“It’s cheaper because there’s less to comply with,” Mr Grant noted.
Why isn’t the US GBC shouting about this from the rooftops?
While the “astroturf” forces have been lobbying hard and cohesively, Mr Grant said there has to date been no coherent response from the “other side of the fight”, which includes the US GBC, LEED and the environmental groups.
“It is unseemly for the US Green Building Council to come out and call a spade a spade, because they are the leader [in sustainability],” Mr Grant said.
“The FSC has trouble taking the gloves off against SFI, because it looks like they are trying to defend their own market share, and they are trying to do that, but beyond that there is a very serious issue.
“At the end it’s about are we driving change towards sustainability, rather than rubber-stamping the status quo?”
Sustainable or not – profiteering is the law
Mr Grant explained there is another underlying legal reason that drives the industry groups, which is that under US law an officer or executive of a publicly listed company has a legal obligation to maximise profits within the law, or face litigation from shareholders. This aspect of US fiduciary law is not shared in Australia, where shareholders vote with their feet, but it is a major driver for short-term thinking and a “business as usual at all costs” approach for unsustainable US-based companies.
“I wouldn’t say I feel sympathy for the people who run these industries but I do understand why they do what they do,” Mr Grant said.
“There is nothing [within fiduciary responsibility law] about it being the maximum profit 100 years from now; it’s all about the next quarter, the short term. And if you are looking at the short term, unsustainable practices such as monoculture plantations are the most profitable.”
He said the model of growing million-hectare tree farms of Douglas Fir and other construction timber species, doing large clear fells for harvesting and using high levels of chemicals for fertility and pest control is the model that makes the US timber industry globally competitive with New Zealand, China and Brazil.
“Even if it means the timber quality is bad, there is erosion, chemicals build up in the soil, fish die and there are landslides – those are all [considered] externalities; it’s not [the industry’s] problem,” Mr Grant said.
“In a way [the industry] are both victims and perpetrators as they are in an economic system which doesn’t do full cost accounting. It’s the rules of the game are and need to change. And the only thing that will get it to change is things get so bad, they must.”
Design is the rallying point
Mr Grant believes reaching out to the architecture and design community is crucial to winning the battle over greenwashing.
“They are smart people, and they are gatekeepers and promoters, as they are the ones who use these [ratings] systems,” Mr Grant said.
“A concern around Green Globes getting the Feds to adopt [their system] is that architecture and engineering sectors are going to have to do Green Globes, because otherwise they will say, ‘You won’t get the work.’
“There are a lot of architects out there who believe in green building and are driving real change. We are developing a strategy to define the high ground, and we need to recruit some large developers and builders. And some progressive manufacturers, because there are some manufacturers who have worked hard to meet the high green bar, and these guys have an interest in [it remaining high].”
Is astroturfing coming to our neck of the woods too?
Mr Grant said that as we have similar front organisations here in Australia, maybe the US experience and how the sustainability movement is tackling the issues will “strike a chord”.
“The over-arching narrative is the same [in Australia],” Mr Grant said.
“[Globally] we are running out of time, and this fight is not going away. Somehow we have got to figure out how to evolve out of the current gridlock.
“If it is true we have only five years to turn this supertanker around… we have to do something to force [industry] to change. So we have to elevate the issue [of sustainability] in a way that hopefully does inspire change.”