50 Shades of Green: The Contradictions of Greenwashing in Architecture
Nowadays everything is “painted” green. It’s green packaging, green technologies, green materials, green cars and, of course, green architecture. A “green wave”, stimulated by the environmental and energy crisis we are facing, with emphasis on climate change and all the consequences linked to global warming. This calamitous situation is confirmed by the second part of the report entitled Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and presented in recent weeks. It reveals that, although adaptation efforts are being observed in all sectors, the progress implemented so far is very low, as the actions taken are not enough.
In the face of an unsatisfactory prognosis, sustainability – which already in 1972 became the subject of the agenda through the Stockholm Conference organized by the UN – is increasingly present in all activities, making them aim at a more balanced economic development. , which respects the planet’s natural resources. However, in the midst of this profusion of “green” strategies, the very definition of sustainability has been corrupted, moving away from the original concept based on three main spheres: society, environment and economy. In other words, achieving social well-being without negatively influencing the environment, but moving the economy.
In this sense, by understanding the complexity of the subject of sustainability and the different domains in which it needs to be present to be fully applied, it is possible to raise numerous questions about certain “green” attitudes that are emerging with profusion nowadays. Despite many good examples, the hype of the topic has made it a marketing strategy, absorbed by the industry through tools that help boost sales or justify irresponsible practices.
This practice is known as greenwashing, a pejorative term that identifies the misuse of the idea of sustainability in which the purpose is not related to its principles. It is, therefore, a strategy that presents environmental benefits in a disconnected, incomplete or even false way, aiming at a market theoretically more concerned with good environmental practices. As a marketing element, greenwashing is present in different industries: food, automobiles, appliances, construction, among others.
In the scope of architecture, the phrases “sustainable enterprise” and “environmental concern” have been applied in the most diverse contexts. Just type these keywords into your browser to find a profusion of fake sustainable projects sold for gold under the umbrella of sustainability. A classic example is the large residential developments that sell the idea of contact with nature, but for that, they deforest a huge portion of the natural area, destroying ecosystems, to then apply a green roof and use native plants in landscaping.
Another strategy widely used in these terms is the emphasis given to the simple fact that they comply with the legislation when the enterprise is said to be sustainable for having a low occupancy rate or for maintaining a significant percentage of preserved area, and these numbers are nothing more than the norm in force in the master plan. Or when they emphasize elements such as wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, in addition to the green roofs already mentioned, which, even out of context and unrelated to the project, make the building sell as an example of sustainability. Anyway, the strategies are numerous and often crass. A brief analysis of the place of implantation, of the construction techniques, of the materials used is enough to smudge the green makeup used in such projects.
At this point, some readers may be wondering about the importance of certifications in combating fake sustainable projects, and yes, they are very important. Ecological seals encourage architects to comply with quality and sustainability standards, valuing the use of new technologies and products. However, it is also up to us to take a critical stance in relation to these classifications because, as stated by Fabiano Sobreira, the LEED certification itself, perhaps the best known in the world, has been questioned by professionals in the field due to the little emphasis given to the project and the absence of local contextualization.
Taking LEED certification as an example, it is possible to see that its criteria address only one aspect of sustainability (environmental) but ignore the other pillars that underlie the concept, such as social and economic. Therefore, to make it more comprehensive – as the term sustainability itself is –, it is proposed the development (or improvement) of certification systems that more effectively consider the “architectural quality resulting from design decisions, with less emphasis on materials, technologies and accessories, and that include cultural, social and economic issues as complementary evaluation criteria”. In this way, it seeks to avoid the reproduction of international models and technologies and to recognize architectural solutions that are sustainable by nature and are related to the context in which they are inserted.
This counterpoint to technological paraphernalia and the search for a more genuine sustainability has been increasingly valued as the broader and more complex meaning of the term is understood. An important example of this change in direction is the choice of the 2022 Pritzker Prize released this week. Diébédo Francis Kéré gained notoriety precisely for presenting a collaborative design process involving the community, with the innovative use of materials and vernacular techniques that focus on environmental comfort and spatial quality. In other words, his works combine ethical commitment, aesthetic quality and environmental efficiency, genuinely contemplating the three fundamental pillars of the concept of sustainability.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the urgency for measures and strategies that respect the environment is unquestionable, especially within civil construction. In this sense, no strategy should be made unfeasible; on the contrary, any responsible action, however small, counts. Meantime, we must be aware of forced marketing made under certain circumstances, which adds an exaggerated value to something that is not appropriate, as well as we must learn to value more and more modest and accessible strategies that think about the environment, but also in the cultural, social and economic contexts in which the project is inserted.
This article is part of ArchDaily Topics: The Road to Net Zero Architecture. Monthly, we explore a specific topic through articles, interviews, news and projects. Learn more about ArchDaily topics. As always, ArchDaily is open to contributions from our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, please contact us.