Showing that green building has effectively moved into the mainstream, USA Today published an article this week titled “‘Green’ growth fuels an entire industry”. In it, they take a close look at the nationwide adoption of the United States Green Building Council’s (USGBC) green building certification program, LEED. The article reports that, today, over 200 government agencies now require that buildings meet LEED standards, and that the green construction market could reach $122 billion in the next 3 years. It goes on to say:

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.

Offering encouraging news about the nation’s growing awareness of the importance of green building and energy efficiency, the article also takes a look at the evolution of LEED standards and the role that the building industry plays in the process. It is encouraging to see these topics being discussed on such a mainstream platform as USA Today. It shows just how far we have come in the last 10 years, and we see it as a clear indication that the green building movement, while continually evolving, is here to stay.

To see the USGBC’s response to the USA Today article, click here.

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This Holiday Season as you look for gifts or supplies for the children in your life, you’ll probably consider the child’s age and interests, and the quality and durability of the product. It is much less common to consider the safety of the toy – most people assume that there are government regulations in place to protect us. Unfortunately, the reality is that, as a country, we still lack consensus on how to approach regulation of chemicals in consumer products – even those intended for children.

There is currently legislation at both the federal level and in many states seeking to clarify strategies to protect our children from toxic chemical exposure. The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, introduced to the House by Sen. Frank Lautenberg is one. Another is the Child-Safe Product Act, currently under consideration in New York State. It is notable that parents, health care professionals and educators are not the only ones showing support for this kind of legislation – many businesses are too. Today, Green Depot Founder Sarah Beatty testified at a New York State Assembly hearing on the Child-Safe Product Act. In her testimony she explained why businesses should welcome regulation of this kind:

The Child-Safe Products Act protects workers in manufacturing facilities, nearby communities, and all consumers from toxic chemical exposure. It reduces the potential for product makers’ legal liability for illness linked to toxic chemicals, and it increases investor confidence that they will be free from:
• Worker’s compensation claims from occupational illness linked to on the job toxic chemical exposure; and
• A tarnished public image, resulting in decreased sales, suffered by so many brands in the past few years due to contamination.

According to the American Sustainable Business Council the economic benefits of chemical regulation include: cutting the costs of hazardous waste storage and disposal; improving worker protection; decreasing health care costs, and future liabilities; and supporting market trends that transform supply chains that result in better businesses.

There are many arguments in favor of this kind of legislation – and support and awareness are growing across the country. This time next year, as we are shopping for meaningful gifts that will delight our favorite youngsters, let’s hope that we won’t still be having to wonder and worry about the possibility of lurking toxins!

Click here for more information on The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011.

Click here for more about the Child-Safe Products Act under consideration in New York State.

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Christmas is almost upon those of us celebrating it this year.  At this point, many of us have already bought our gifts.  Some we’ve bought this year are very environmentally-friendly; others, decidedly less-so.  For many of us, struggling through the post-recession haze, buying gifts this year has been a challenge; for others, we find ourselves worried about how much more waste or carbon we might be producing during the holiday season.

And every year, we always forget to buy gifts for a few folks.  Sudden realizations may lead to midnight rushes to dollar stores or box stores for a last-minute gift.  Having remembered to get something for our loved one relieves our guilt, but having bought something environmentally-damaging might plague our conscience.

A recent New York Times piece details a growing trend in gift-giving this year: bartering.

To many, the idea of bartering may be unthinkable – the idea of buying something on-the-fly, and inexpensively, from a Wal-Mart or Target almost seems preferable to re-gifting something that might be used, or giving a skill instead of something material.

But consider, for a moment, what the environmental impacts of those last-minute, non-green products might be.  According to carbonfootprint.com, the carbon footprint of a brand new gift can be…

30 kg of CO2 for an mp3 player.
70 kg of CO2 or more for an electric kitchen appliance.
20 kg of CO2 or less for a board game.
5-10 kg of CO2 for a book.

So, if a green product isn’t an option this year – either because it’s now too late, or because the recession has us all tightening our budgets – consider that sharing a skill or re-gifting with someone might be a good way to share this holiday.

As the Times notes, the growing phenomenon of bartering – either skills or products – is closely related to the recession – and its practice has been growing in recent years.  According to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops, net sales are up this year from 13% for last year; and according to scientific polls, 26% of Americans said they were bartering products and skills this holiday season, up more than double since 2000, when the question was first posited.

But the practice of sharing a skill or re-gifting a product this year can have an environmental purpose, as well.  It reduces demand for new production, lowering carbon emissions from the manufacturing process, and it keeps less-wanted gifts out of teetering landfills.  (Consider how many of those last-minute, cheap gifts we received either broke quickly, or were generally unwanted, and wound up in the garbage bound for the landfill.  The thought is certainly sobering.)  So this year, instead of rushing out last-minute for a gift that’s probably going to the landfill, considering a barter of skills, or a re-gifting from last year.  Your wallet, the earth, and perhaps most importantly, your friends and family, will thank you.

For items like green products, green books, and green insulation, you can always visit http://www.greendepot.com. image of books by flickr user nedrichards; image of landfill by flickr user d’arcy norman.
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As we try to travel in greener directions through the wild, wild west of the consumer market, there are plenty of markers along the way to guide us–in the form of eco-labels, those little green symbols printed and/or stuck on nearly everything you can buy these days. There are symbols indicating that a product is organic, chlorine-free or grown upside down without soil; that it was made by people paid a fair wage or by chickens allowed to go for walks in the sun. If there’s an environmental issue worth considering, there’s an eco-label related to it—which on one hand is fantastic, but on the other… Well, it gets to be a bit much. After a while, all the symbols seem to fade into a solicitous green haze with about as much meaning as the words “As seen on TV!” on the box of the latest trendy gadget. And what’s worse, some of the labels don’t even mean what they appear to. Who would guess that their “free range” chicken might have never even seen the open sky? And others don’t mean very much at all, like organic labels on fruits and vegetables that aren’t normally grown with pesticides to begin with.

But we’re not likely to see any fewer eco-labels anytime soon–we’ll probably only see more, and some of them are genuinely useful indicators of qualities you might actually care about. So with that in mind, here’s a brief run-down of a few of the most commonly seen eco-labels and what they mean, then a list of places where you can learn more about these online and look up the rest of them, too.

EnergyStar is probably the most often-seen eco-label. EnergyStar is a joint program of the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and the U.S. Department of Energy, and it awards the EnergyStar label to household products, homes and nonresidential buildings that meet its energy efficiency requirements. Its standards are lower than those required for LEED certification, but it’s a decent start.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a program run by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization with no government affiliation. LEED provides third-party verification that a building project followed green building procedures, meets energy efficient performance standards, and is a health place to live or work. The main criteria for evaluation are sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, the use of sustainable materials (e.g. low-VOC paint, green insulation) , and a healthy indoor environment. The program is based on a system that awards a silver, gold, or platinum certification level, based on the number of points a project was able to win by addressing the various criteria. Certification is entirely voluntary.

USDA Organic This label indicates that the product meets the National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards for using the word “organic” in its labeling. These standards vary for the different products that are eligible for the label, which include not only food but personal care products as well. But most require the absence of synthetic fertilizers, conventional pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones and sewage sludge in the production process. You can find a table outlining the different requirements for different products here.

Fair Trade This symbol indicates that the product has been certified by TransFair USA, which is the only U.S. member of FLO (Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International, the Germany-based umbrella organization for a group of 20 international fair trade certifying nonprofits). Fair Trade Certification standards help farmers and farm workers to lift themselves out of poverty by investing in their farms and communities, protecting the environment, and helping them developing the business skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace. The label signifies that the product was grown by small-scale farmers who are democratically organized, either in a co-ops or unions; that the buyer paid up to 60% of the cost of the raw materials in advance, that a fair wage was paid and no child labor was used in production, that none of the 10 worst pesticides were used in the growing process, and that the buyer paid additional premiums to go toward services to support and develop the farm community.

FSC The FSC label indicates, essentially, that a wood product was grown in a forest that is being managed responsibly and sustainably. The FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), certifies forest managers and manufacturers of wood products that it determines are managing forests and using forest products responsibly and sustainably. Among their major concerns are not allowing logging practices to destroy forests, protecting the habitats of endangered wildlife, and making sure the profits from commercial forest endeavors are shared fairly with communities living in the forests. The FSC is not affiliated with any government, is a nonprofit organization, and certification is entirely voluntary.

For more info on these and literally hundreds more eco-labels, see these links:

Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices Eco-Label page

The Global Ecolabel Index

Inhabititat’s Eco Labels 101

Top image courtesy of Shutterstock

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Many of our readers are familiar with the two most popular rating systems for how energy-efficient a given home is: The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star for Homes (the most popular) and the US Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes.

Both require much greater energy efficiency than traditional American building methods even come close to offering–and for that alone they are invaluable. But an organization called the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), featured in a recent New York Times article and based in Urbana, Illinois, is setting a new, much higher bar for energy conservation: By making a home’s envelope close to completely airtight, making the most of the sun’s natural heat by way of big windows facing south and using a combination of Institute-mandated building techniques and green products to keep that heat in the house when it’s wanted (and let it out when it isn’t), a house that passes the Institute’s certification process uses on average 75 to 95 percent less energy than most new buildings built in the US!

Building a home to the Institute’s standards is somewhat more expensive than traditional building, though the extra expense is often more than offset by the savings from lower energy bills. But because most low-income people can’t afford to spend an extra cent more than necessary on building, but stand to benefit from green housing as much as anyone else, Habitat for Humanity has begun to experiment with Passive Solar housing itself.

H4H Vermont’s Green Valley chapter is currently building the first Passive Solar house in New England, on a city-donated plot in the colonial village of Charlotte. And the house is not only PHIUS-certified, but pre-fab, too–it’s made of modular units that are made in a factory and then trucked in and assembled in near-complete condition. This way of building saves vast amounts of construction waste and goes a long way to protect the natural environment of the building site. The house will be the first pre-fab, modular Passive Solar house in the country, and hopefully will kick off a long-lasting trend in this kind of homebuilding.

The project is in collaboration with the nonprofit Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, builder Preferred Building Systems, Charlotte-based passive-house specialist Peter Schneider, and Boston-based architect JB Clancy.  The house was completed this month, and a family of four is expected to move in by Christmas.

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