Is your contractor eco-friendly or eco-fake?
Pegasus employee Francisco Quijada measures a client’s kitchen entryway for a renovation project that included recycled cork flooring and locally quarried tile countertops. (Photo by Mark Wilson)
Angie’s List member Erin Barnes-Driscoll of St. Louis Park, Minn., says she wanted to make her basement renovation project as green as possible, so she hired highly rated Building Arts Sustainable Architecture in St. Paul, Minn., to design and build it.
When a subcontractor, hired by Building Arts to evaluate the home’s moisture levels, discovered extensive mold damage behind drywall, architect Christine Bleyhl quickly put a stop to the whole project.
While the renovation remains on hold until Barnes-Driscoll fixes water infiltration issues, she’s grateful that the contractors identified the underlying problem.
“Luckily, I had a designer/remodeler who understood the physics of houses and was able to direct me on what to focus on first in tackling the renovation process,” she says. “Other less knowledgeable contractors might have recommended the basement be finished without first correcting the underlying problems.”
Even though Barnes-Driscoll considers herself well versed in green building as an employee of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Green Buildings Program, she says she still struggles to find reputable green contractors.
“I’m fortunate to have somewhat more access to information on finding and choosing eco-friendly products or services than do a lot of people,” she says. “Even so, I’ve still found that it can be a challenge to find contractors who really understand and practice holistic green building techniques and practices.”
Do your homeowork
As more companies tout green products and services, experts say consumers like Barnes-Driscoll should do their homework before hiring to ensure their contractor understands eco-friendly techniques and truly practices them. It’s a topic that matters to Angie’s List members, as evident in a recent online poll that showed 72 percent of respondents consider green work practices important, and of those, 15 percent try to hire only green service providers.
In a separate poll, however, 62 percent of respondents say they’re either somewhat skeptical or consider most green claims to be gimmicks.
More than 5,000 plumbers on the List say they provide green services, including Aaron Gaynor, owner of The EcoPlumbers Inc. near Columbus, Ohio, and a licensed Green Plumbers USA member. His highly rated company earned the license after completing a 32-hour course in the latest water and energy efficient technologies.
The EcoPlumbers help customers conserve water by fixing leaks or installing tankless water heaters and low-flow shower heads or toilets. His plumbers use iPads instead of paper, drive fuel-efficient vehicles, and Gaynor recycles paper, cardboard and plastic. “I think there are people out there claiming to be green just because it’s kind of trendy,” he says. “But a lot of them are not doing anything to be green.”
Green often means different things to different people, but experts suggest researching a company’s certifications to help weed out the shady from the sincere. For example, LEED certification means that an independent, third party verifies a home meets high performance standards in sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. Contractors certified as green professionals by the National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry must document experience and training.
Angie’s List member Richard Worth of West Palm Beach, Fla., says he did his homework. Before hiring highly rated Terrano Plumbing & Remodeling in Boca Raton, Fla., to complete a $225 pipe cleaning, he confirmed the company’s Green Plumbers USA membership. Before hiring Lady Bug Environmentally Responsible Pest Control in Lake Park, Fla., for pest control services, he verified they use products certified by the EPA.
“I can’t see any downside [to hiring green service providers] at all except I have to do a little investigative work to see if they do the things they are claiming to do,” Worth says. He first checks Angie’s List to determine whether a contractor reported one of seven eco-friendly designations, which include use of green products or work practices, memberships in green building organizations or various green certifications.
Geoffrey Shafer, owner of highly rated Pegasus Design-To-Build near Boston, earned the NARI green certification after taking classes and an exam. He says opportunities to be eco-friendly in your home might include patching an oak floor instead of ripping it out or installing insulation instead of replacing windows. He also says Pegasus only uses nontoxic, low-VOC paint, which dropped in price over the last few years and performs as well as other paints.
“Really, it’s sensible building,” Shafer says. “You have to weed through the marketing hype and look at what really will make an impact.” He discusses eco-friendly options with every client, but only 10 to 15 percent actually seek out greener and more sustainable products. “Some clients will feel strongly about it,” he says. “With some, we just say this is the right way to do it, and it doesn’t add cost to the project.”
Watch out for greenwashing
A healthy dose of skepticism benefits all consumers, especially those who may fall prey to “greenwashing,” a term used when a company falsely proclaims to be environmentally friendly, says Valerie Davis, co-founder of the Greenwashing Index, an Oregon-based watchdog group.
“When green marketing went mainstream, so did some bad marketing practices such as using words like ‘green’ and ‘earth friendly’ without anything backing it up,” Davis says. “It’s not the words ‘green’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ consumers need to be wary of; it’s the lack of support behind those words,” she says. “Consumers must do their homework. There’s no getting around it.”
A recent NAHB study shows green homes comprised 17 percent of the overall residential construction market in 2011 and could grow to between 29 and 38 percent by 2016. Kevin Morrow, green NAHB senior program manager, says consumers should be aware of greenwashing, but he thinks it will diminish over time.
“As consumers and professionals get more educated about the genesis of products and the whole life cycle of them, there will be less greenwashing,” he says. In the meantime, he advises consumers to seek a service provider’s green credential and then check out the organization that provided it.
One example labeled greenwashing by the Greenwashing Index includes a marketing video created by highly rated Arrow Exterminators, located in several cities across the southern United States. The video touts the company’s community involvement, but fails to explain its Environmental Protection Agency-approved pest management program.
Cindy Mannes, the company’s chief marketing officer, says Arrow created the video to kick off a program with employees, and explains the Integrated Pest Management program elsewhere on its website. She thinks a competitor posted the video on the Greenwashing Index, and she’s requested its removal.In the meantime, Mannes says she clarified the IPM program on the company’s website.
“It’s one of those things you’re just stuck with when people can say whatever they want,” she says. “I’m much more concerned with the responsible treatment practices that we offer.”
Following concerns raised by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2009 that the Energy Star program lacked effective controls to prevent fraud and abuse, the EPA and the Department of Energy implemented significant changes. They include expanding product qualification and verification testing, updating program requirements and piloting a program to promote the most efficient Energy Star products. New third-party certification procedures to qualify products took effect in January.
Some consumers remain skeptical
Green concepts apply to more than the plumbing, building and remodeling industries. Mike Weintz, franchise owner of The Cleaning Authority in St. Louis, says he meets with clients who express doubt about his highly rated housecleaning company’s ecofriendly claims.
“When I mention the green, I get the eye rolling from some people, and I know that’s not important to them,” he says. But many clients hire his company because his crews use Ecolab products, which carry the Green Seal certification for environmental quality and performance.
Some question the cleaning quality of his products, Weintz says, but he emphasizes that they cost the same and work just as well. “I’ve had maybe two customers quit because they said our products just didn’t work well enough, but I contribute that to not enough elbow grease from my employees,” he says.
Member Lissa Jackson of Avondale Estates, Ga., remains skeptical about green claims. In 2008, she and her husband, Ted, paid highly rated Taylor Construction in Atlanta $24,000 to install 21 windows in their 1938 home. The new windows came with a lifetime warranty for glass breakage and a one-year energy savings pledge that covers heating/cooling costs for one year if the savings fail to add up to a promised 40 percent.
After finding a crack in one window more than a year later, and discovering their energy bill actually increased by 10 percent, the Jacksons sought help through the Angie’s List complaint resolution process. “It seems many services report being green, but that is only lip service to the idea,” Lissa says.
The Jacksons say Taylor resolved the issue by paying them $500 for the energy pledge credit. “The energy pledge is typically paid for by the manufacturer, but since they went out of business we paid it,” says Taylor Construction spokeswoman Jaime White.
The Federal Trade Commission, which works to protect consumers against deceptive product claims, doesn’t define whether a product meets specific green standards, says spokesman James Kohm.
“We think that would be bad for the marketplace. We don’t want to stifle competition and innovation,” Kohm says, adding that the agency tries to take action when problems become widespread. In fact, only a few green cases involving fraudulent ads end up in court because consumers rarely investigate green promises, he says.
Will Anstey, owner of highly rated Devonshire Landscapes in Seattle, says he tries to be clear in telling clients that eco-friendly landscaping may not result in the greenest lawn, but it makes for a healthier yard and protects local waterways. “Mother Nature has the best method figured out,” Anstey says. His crews compost waste, spread compost mulch and avoid synthetic fertilizers.
But not all of his customers want to go green because the weed killers don’t work as well and lawns might not appear as lush as the ones next door, he says. “Even with a completely healthy soil, with all the necessary organics and microbes, the lawn wouldn’t be quite as green looking,” Anstey says. “It will be just as healthy but not as green.”
Keeping a healthy wad of green in his wallet matters to member John Newman of Alpine, Utah, so he looks for the best value and tends to take green claims with a grain of salt. He first looks for highly rated service providers, then seeks tangible proof that the purchase will pay off. For instance, his tankless water heater cost $5,995 with installation, minus $600 in rebates —2.5 times more than the replacement of two traditional hot water heaters.
Newman contends energy savings will pay for the appliance over time. “It’s foolhardy to blow a family budget just to be totally green,” he says. “I just tread carefully and only take advantage of green when I can do so financially.”
— With additional reporting by Ellen Miller