Awash in Green: The Rise of Greenwashed Messaging
Spaces designed with biophilic principles are gaining popularity, but greenwashing is lurking around the edges and creeping into the messaging.
As manufacturers and practitioners have sought to lean into customers’ and the public’s sense of urgency about climate change, more have assimilated aspects of eco-friendly, nature-friendly and sustainable approaches into their products and practices to varying degrees. Today, the interior design industry is awash in “green,” from natural fabrics and finishes to literally more visible green, be it paint, wall coverings, upholstery, or plants. But, as any designer knows, there are many shades of green. And that has generated a lot of controversy and conflict about what it means to practice “green” design.
Rising energy costs and concerns about burgeoning landfills in the 1990s spurred the adoption of sustainable building and design practices. The sudden interest in what had been a niche sector of the built environment industry generated demand for eco-friendly products and ushered in a menagerie of certification and eco-label programs, some more rigorous than others. It wasn’t long before hard-core sustainability practitioners began to accuse some manufacturers and organizations of “greenwashing” — that is to say, making claims that their products or services were more “green” or sustainable than, by some standards, they actually were.
Now that demand for eco-friendly and sustainable design has rebounded, so have the controversies over “greenwashing.”
Complicating the issue around “greenwashing” is the range of methods and solutions that could be called “green” or sustainable. At one end of the spectrum are manufacturers and practitioners who refer to themselves as “green” or eco-friendly but who cherry-pick some attributes of sustainable practice and ignore the rest. On the other end are those who view sustainability as a holistic approach that encompasses the entire lifecycle of a product or project or building: from where and how materials are sourced; to how they are obtained and shipped; manufactured and packaged; delivered; installed and operated; maintained; and how they can be reused or recycled when they no longer serve their present purpose. It is this group that often accuses the former of “greenwashing.”
Without question “greenwashing” does exist. Some manufacturers will call themselves “green” or eco-friendly because they use organic, renewable materials, although no other part of their manufacturing or delivery process qualifies as sustainable. Likewise, some practitioners promote their practices as eco-design because they specify natural materials and finishes, enhance daylighting, reduce energy use, and improve indoor air quality. The problem is not that those practices are not “green,” but rather that they are only partial solutions to a much bigger problem and can mislead consumers into thinking they are being more responsible than they really are.
A further complication arises from the fact that sustainable solutions often involve trade-offs between competing “green” priorities, or they may be reengineered later on in the implementation process in order to reduce costs.
Of late, the issue of greenwashing has crept into the application of biophilic design, which seeks to introduce natural elements and natural lighting into the interior environment. In the past few years biophilic design has been widely embraced by the A&D community in response to concerns about the impact of interior environments on health and mental wellness.
During the pandemic, consumer media glommed onto biophilic design as a wellness panacea, transforming what had been a developing, evidence-based industry trend into a fad. Homes and Gardens magazine dubbed it “2021’s most exciting new interior trend,” and Vogue declared “this nature-based interiors trend promises wellness.” The Vogue article featured photos of chic “biophilic” products for the home, such as furniture with leafy patterns. With consumers expectations set so low, purveyors of all sorts of “naturalistic” products and plants have been quick to jump on the biophilic bandwagon.
As with sustainability, there are those that view biophilic design holistically and those who claim to practice biophilic design but in fact incorporate only certain aspects of it, such as introducing more plants or natural forms into their designs. While there is research showing that those interventions can indeed be beneficial to occupants, they are of limited impact compared to creating an entire environment that seeks to maximize occupants’ connection to nature. This is leading to what one journalist has framed as a distinction between truly sustainable biophilic design and “greenwashed aesthetics.”
All this confusion and controversy has stymied some designers. A recent opinion piece on Dezeen.com asserted, “all these ‘greenwashing’ headlines are striking fear into the hearts of designers, makers, interior designers and architects who want to do the right thing, but haven’t quite got it all worked out yet.”
What are designers to do?
First, the industry needs to recognize the difference between those manufacturers and practitioners who are misleading consumers and those who are trying to work themselves through a dizzying array of complex and sometimes conflicting guidelines, standards and certifications. These latter designers, who are less guilty of “greenwashing” than of a lack of knowledge, would benefit from more clarity and explanation and less finger-pointing.
Secondly, there should be more and better coordination of resources to assist designers into becoming better sustainable practitioners. They certainly are not aided by membership organizations that offer to help them promote themselves as “green” rather than educate and train them into how to practice truly sustainable and/or biophilic design. Add to that the plethora of product and building certification programs they must wade through with little or no assistance and you can understand why so many designers are exasperated.
Aside from the occasional course or panel discussion at a conference or expo, little help is available from professional or industry organizations to interior designers who want to learn more and improve their skills. But tools are available:
- Ecolabel Index provides a list of all current ecolabels in Canada, a number of which pertain to interiors and buildings;
- The Canada Green Building Council has information about LEED ID+C for new commercial interiors;
- Annette Stelmack and Lisa Tucker have each authored good comprehensive introductions to sustainable interior design, which can be purchased online;
- The International Living Future Institute offers a free biophilic design toolkit for those both new and more experienced with the practice;
- For a good primer on biophilic interior design, start with the book, Nature Inside: A Biophilic Design Guide by Catherine O. Ryan and William J. Browning.
Finally, while it is true that there are shades of green, it is also true that “greenwashing” is a violation of several Canadian consumer laws. For more information, consult the article on environmental claims and greenwashing on the Competition Bureau Canada’s website.
The need for sustainable design is only going to increase. Designers have an opportunity but also a responsibility to provide clients not just with fixes but with the best solutions possible.
Dr. Michael J. Berens, M.S., Ph.D., is a freelance writer,
editor and researcher who authored the 2023 American
Society of Interior Designers’ (ASID) Trends Report. Berens
has 30 years of prior experience in association management,
writing, editing, communications, research and knowledge
management. He served for more than 14 years as the
director of research and knowledge resources for ASID and
for nearly 15 years with AARP as an editor, writer and
associate director of research for dissemination and
knowledge management. In addition to serving clients in the
interior design industry, he also has contributed articles on
interior design business and research, housing trends and
management and leadership topics.