Beware of free margaritas

If you’re a builder, you’ve probably heard about Greenbuild, the annual gathering of the U.S. Green Building Council. If not, you will. The conference brought more than 15,000 builders, architects, designers and other environmentally-minded professionals to the Denver Convention Center in Denver, Col., last November. It also brought me – a wry forest advocate intent on spreading the gospel of responsible forestry to a choir of assembled eco-builders.

Green building means many things to many different types of people. If you’re like me, though, you probably don’t associate green building with logging companies or free margaritas, but both were on hand during Greenbuild. In fact, the logging companies were the ones distributing the free margaritas; and on the very first day of the conference. Why would loggers be slinging booze to greenies? For the answer to that, I had to do a little digging.

First, it’s important to know that the most influential project of the U.S. Green Building Council is the LEED green building standard. LEED awards points to buildings that employ environmentally friendly materials, energy efficiency, and other sustainable design techniques. Over 50 state and local governments incorporate some kind of LEED-certification incentives into government building codes, so you know that it’s starting to catch on.

I like the LEED program because it’s a great market-based tool for improving forestry. LEED awards points for building with wood products from forests certified to the high environmental standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). So when builders choose LEED projects, they increase the market share of environmental leaders.

This is where the loggers and booze comes in. The biggest and baddest loggers hate LEED and the FSC because both exclude their products and potentially erode their market-share. Rather than improve their practices to meet the FSC standard, however, North America’s worst loggers teamed up a few years back to develop their own forestry standard – The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). It was the SFI welcoming conventioneers to Margaritaville, trying to win votes that would allow them into new LEED building standards.

But there’s more. Soon these loggers linked up with the vinyl siding industry and other polluting industries excluded by LEED to create a whole new building standard. Enter Green Globes, a half-strength green program backed by a full-strength collection of old school industry trade associations calling themselves the Green Building Initiative. In a targeted strategy to undermine the significant momentum growing behind LEED green building standards, industry lobbyists are parachuting across the country to push for inclusion of Green Globes in government building codes.

Thus far, the LEED standard has been able to hold its own, ceding ground to Green Globes in only a handful of cases. Even so, it might be worth asking your county or municipal governments what they’re doing to promote green building. And if you’re thinking about moving into the exciting world of green building, be sure to educate yourself about the options that are out there, and choose the program that fits your values. With all the rhetoric flying around, builders need to know how to separate facts on the ground from logging industry fiction. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery – in the case of the SFI and Green Globes, there’s just no substance.

Brant Olson is the director of the Old Growth Campaign with the San Francisco-based environmental nonprofit group Rainforest Action Network, and can be reached through www.ran.org.

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