‘Green’ growth fuels an entire industry


From Thomas Frank, USA Today

When Rob Watson was writing the nation’s first private standard for environmentally friendly construction in the 1990s, he wanted to require “green” buildings to get recertified after five years to prove they were actually conserving energy and water.

But Watson, an environmentalist and early U.S. Green Building Council member, was rebuffed by council marketers who feared that developers would shun a green standard if they knew they could lose certification down the road.

“People were terrified that we would do something that would scare people away,” Watson recalled. “It would on some level be a terrible PR thing if you had to remove a building’s (environmental) plaque.”

Watson’s proposal was rejected, illustrating the building industry’s power in shaping the wildly popular green-building standard called LEED, which more than 200 federal, state and local government agencies now require in hope of conserving energy and minimizing environmental damage.

The non-profit council calls itself a “diverse group of builders and environmentalists, corporations and non-profits, teachers and students, lawmakers and citizens.”

In practice, the council is a business group dominated by architects, engineers, builders and suppliers that profit as tens of thousands of buildings and homes are built to meet LEED, a point-based rating system that stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

Business interests make up 89% of the council’s voting membership, according to a USA TODAY analysis of council records, and include 91 Fortune 500 companies such as McDonald’s, PepsiCo, DuPont and Alcoa. Eighteen of the board’s 20 voting members are officials at for-profit firms. Businesses have given the council tens of millions of dollars the past decade in both membership dues and donations, council records show.

By contrast, the council’s board has just one person who works for an environmental advocacy group. Only 100 voting members of the council — about 1% — are environmental non-profits. The board didn’t have a public-health specialist until 2010 — 17 years after it formed — though LEED encourages the design of buildings that protect occupants’ health.

“You’ve got the building industry playing a strong role in setting these standards that are then being adopted as law. I don’t think many people understand that,” said John Wargo, a Yale University environmental health professor.

The building industry’s influence over LEED, while raising some concerns, also has propelled LEED’s dramatic growth across the U.S. and into 139 countries. LEED has won wide acceptance among people who plan, design and construct buildings as a way to win environmental approval and boost profit. There are 13,500 LEED-certified commercial buildings in the U.S., and another 30,000 have applied for LEED approval.

Read the rest of this article at USA Today.