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Food for Thought on the Green Tipping Point

By Greg Stine
Oregon Business Magazine
July 2008


Have you heard a low-level buzz in your neighborhood or office surrounding
“green building”? If you’re like most people on the West Coast you may
have heard the term, but most likely it’s not affecting your life or your behavior.

Well, it’s time to start paying attention because residential green
building is about to go mainstream. Even though healthy and sustainable
building practices (such as using sustainable, more durable and less toxic
materials and incorporating energy-saving devices) have been around for
decades, their popularity has started to really take off.

This past year, The Wall Street Journal named green building one of the
top 10 trends in architecture and Better Homes & Gardens described it as
“the fastest-ever growing trend in the home building industry.” Sunset
magazine even showcased a green home for its 2005 Idea Home.

In addition, the National Association of Home Builders adopted voluntary
green building guidelines last year, and major production home companies,
such as Texas-based Centex Homes, are now building green developments on
the West Coast. Johns Manville sells formaldehyde-free insulation and
every major paint company is now selling paint with no or low levels of
volatile organic compounds. There are also several new publications
devoted exclusively to green building that have emerged this year.

People who are building green right now tend to be passionate about it.
But green home building is going mainstream for another important reason
­— it’s starting to become profitable.

A clear parallel to green building is the growth of the organic food
industry, which was in a similar place 20 years. As the owner of a
marketing and branding firm, I have clients in both the organic food and
green building sectors. Being immersed in both industries, it’s clear to
me that green building will enjoy the same success that organic food does
today and the path (and obstacles to overcome) will be very similar.

Twenty years ago, organic foods were embraced by a relatively small group
of people. Yet by 2003, organic food sales reached $10.38 billion, up from
$3.57 billion in 1997, according to the Organic Trade Association, which
also estimates that organic sales increase between 17% and 21% each year.

Interesting fact: The nation’s largest retailer of organic produce is now Wal-Mart.

At first, the industry had trouble within its own circles defining what
made food “organic.” Eventually, outside certification groups, such as
Oregon Tilth, began certifying food as organic. The adoption of “Certified
Organic” labeling by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration followed in 2003.

Like the early organic food industry, the graduation from niche to
mainstream for the residential green industry will come with the
development and agreement on standards.

Many groups with green home building interests are working hard (to some
it looks like fighting) for an accepted definition of green. Developing
the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards for
commercial buildings was a big step forward for the industry. Yet adopting
a standard for residential homes and buildings has proven to be more
difficult. Because local and regional climate and geography have a lot to
do with what defines green residential building, it is likely that
standards will come from regional and local groups. Standards are
currently under development, including a pilot LEED residential program,
but it’s taking time because there are many different rating systems and
it’s still confusing.

Without a clear, simple standard, green home building is too complicated
for the typical consumer. Early adopters may think that green technology
is interesting, but mainstream Americans just want to feel good about the
house they live in. The same people who place their recycling at the curb,
drive a hybrid car and eat organic food will want (and buy) a green home.

So pay close attention. Once the battle over green standards is settled,
clear guidelines will emerge and the consumer message will become simpler.
And like Wal-Mart embracing organic food, large successful companies
(hint: Home Depot) will begin making money selling green building to
mainstream America.

 

 

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