What Does Green Really Mean?

Marketing strategies make it difficult to define what it means to be green.

February 17, 2009
Las Vegas Business Sun
Green Issue

For anyone who can count, it's easy to conclude that the Toyota Prius hybrid, which gets 48 miles per gallon in city driving, treads much more lightly on the environment than the behemoth Ford Expedition, which gets 14 miles per gallon.

Not so fast. Loading eight people into the Expedition yields 112 passenger miles per gallon, compared with 96 for two people riding in a Prius. By that measure, explained Steve Rypka, president of the Green Dream Enterprises consulting firm in Henderson, Nev., the Expedition comes out as a greener vehicle than the trendy Prius.

As the green movement has grown from a few groups partial to wearing tie-dye and into an popular marketing strategy, it now faces the pivotal issue of defining what it means to be "green." Many companies have slapped the green label on their products or services, but few organizations outside of the construction industry have written standards that carry the same level of authority or recognition as the Consumer Reports reviews or Underwriter Laboratories product tests.

"It's a pretty nebulous term and everybody is throwing it around pretty loosely," said Sean Thueson, an attorney at Holland & Hart. "It think it's getting to the point when you say green, it probably doesn't mean much."

Some people contend that paying attention to membership lists of organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council can help to identify the true believers and practitioners. But mygreenpages.com, which says it lists green-oriented businesses, has categories for businesses as far-flung as day spas, Italian restaurants and Western clothing sellers on its Las Vegas page.

"A lot of so-called green is on the surface," said Richard Nelson, a vice president at the consulting firm BEC Environmental in Las Vegas. "It looks good, it sounds good, but it doesn't accomplish much. When we say green, we look at the impact on the environment and not how it's going to sell something."

The building council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, known as LEED, has become perhaps the most widely recognized green label around. When judged against a specific checklist, a project can earn silver, gold or platinum LEED status based on the number of points it accumulates. For example, the Palazzo reached silver, and touted the rating at a ceremony last April that included Gov. Jim Gibbons. Measures such as drip irrigation for landscaping, solar-heated swimming pools, low-flow shower heads and structural steel made from recycled elements helped the hotel-casino earn the rating.

Still, owners or developers can claim their buildings are green, even though they have not gone through a LEED review, by installing low-energy heating and cooling systems but designing everything else in a conventional way.

Even LEED has its limits. Architect Ray Lucchesi of Lucchesi, Galati recalls clients who have asked for a platinum LEED house covering 10,000 square feet for two people. Even though a house could meet all the LEED standards, he doesn't believe it qualifies as green when it is that big for two people to live.

"A lot of people are saying green and marketing green, but not really doing anything to make a better-peforming building," he said. "The term I use is 'ecochic.'"

Against that backdrop, marketers have started to worry that popularity has diluted the value of green. Las Vegas Rock has earned the silver level Cradle-to-Cradle certificate, created for manufacturing operations by the Charlottesville, Va., consulting firm MBDC. To do so, the company took specific steps. For instance, it recycles all the water it uses at its quarry in Goodsprings and its processing plant in Jean. It also agreed to take back and recycle material when a building is razed.

But as competitors have also adopted green with any certification, Las Vegas Rock finds it can have a difficult time wringing any advantage from the cradle-to-cradle certificate.

"I believe there should be some type of agency that checks these things and makes companies go through tests to weed out who's real and who isn't," Las Vegas Rock Vice President Dan Rhoades said.

Although the Federal Trade Commission has issued broad-based guidelines on green marketing that are under review, they have had little effect to date.

Besides checking with the industry groups that keep their own green rosters or independent groups such as the Forest Stewardship Council or Green Seal, business and individual consumers are pretty much on their own when determining whether their purchases are green.

"It's really common sense," Rypka said. "You have to go beyond the marketing hype and ask questions. Is the company doing something for the right reasons or is it just marketing?"