The Green Lever of Trademarks

The United States Green Building Council‘s green building rating system (LEED-Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) has driven the development of many sustainable building products, increased awareness of what needs to be done to make buildings less damaging to the environment, and caused thousands of buildings to be built to better environmental standards than they would have otherwise been.

LEED (R) is a voluntary system, which leverages competition to increase it’s impact through the use of a multi-tiered rating system, which the USGBC has trademarked. Buildings which achieve the highest number of points are classified as ‘platinum,’ the next tier is ‘gold, then ‘silver’ and finally there is a category just called ‘certified.’ This system was introduced in 2000, and in just seven years there have been over 6,500 buildings registered on its website, and about 42,000 professionals have taken the accreditation exam. It’s a system that has a very definite brand identity, which the USGBC has built and extended, using the increasing brand awareness of LEED (R) to leverage market transformation. It’s the brand leader in green:

“There’s nothing else out there. LEED is what’s for dinner,” says Auden Schendler, the director of environmental affairs at Aspen Skiing Co. “Plus, it’s a good idea. Previously, nobody knew what a green building was.”

But those are the direct effects; also important has been the generation of market demand for ‘green’ materials and services, a market which has really taken off since 2000, when LEED was created. Thus, even buildings not LEED-registered have become somewhat greener, since they contain products developed to meet the demand created by LEED. The awareness of green strategies has trickled down into mainstream design thought, and changed other non-LEED buildings too. The extent of this can, of course, be debated.

The USGBC itself is an example of the expansion of the NFP (Not-for-profit) sector that I have noted previously:

Assessing LEED is further complicated by the business growth of the Green Building Council. Awarding gold–and silver and platinum–certification has been a gold mine for the nonprofit organization. Once a small operation with seven paid employees, it now fields a 116-member staff and earns 95% of its $50 million annual budget

Power-suited developers and hard hats have signed on. More than 6,500 projects have registered for LEED certification since 2000, and new categories such as commercial interiors and existing buildings have been added to the original LEED for new construction. Forty-two thousand people have paid $250 to $350 and passed exams to become “LEED-accredited professionals.” The council’s revenue has been growing at 30% or better a year, with close to 20% coming from certification.

Of course, any time that a market is transformed, as the market for buildings and building materials has been, there will be winners and losers, and enemies will be made. So therefore it is to be expected that there will be those who attempt to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the green building movement. The Wall Street Journal had one prime example last summer, but its securely locked up behind their pay-wall now, so I can’t link to it.

Another example is the article The Green Standard? in this month’s Fast Company; the text in one of the opening paragraphs might lead one to believe that there is some huge flaw in the USGBC LEED rating system:

But what does the plaque on the front of a $700 million glass tower really mean? Asking that question exposes some serious cracks in the world’s biggest green-building brand name–Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED–as well as a very human tendency to reach for easy solutions to difficult problems.

However when we actually get into the article, I am left asking where’s the meat? It appears that the worst they have to say is that some people voluntarily do more than LEED requires:

But critics say that the LEED standard falls short of what’s possible in terms of saving energy. While a 25% to 30% improvement in energy use over conventional buildings sounds impressive, it pales compared with, say, the 50% target adopted by the dozens of firms that have signed on to the Architecture 2030 initiative. Assessing LEED is further complicated by the business growth of the Green Building Council. Awarding gold–and silver and platinum–certification has been a gold mine for the nonprofit organization. Once a small operation with seven paid employees, it now fields a 116-member staff and earns 95% of its $50 million annual budget.

Of course, we can and should always do better, but LEED allows for this. The possibility of getting an innovation credit, if you do something above and beyond the requirements always exists. Furthermore, the multi-tiered rating system is very smart-it rewards those who are high achievers, while still rewarding those who are less ambitious. So they say ‘serious cracks’ and it turns out the worst they can say is: it is possible to do better?

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The Green Lever of Trademarks

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