The interest in Green, sustainable, energy efficient, carbon neutral, and more is an important and growing segment of construction. The industry is progressing from making generic claims that don’t mean anything like “We’re An Environmentally Friendly Company” to much more substantive information.
Like any other segment of the industry, green construction has its own terminology. Some words get used interchangeably, some sound similar to the untrained ear, but understanding the differences and nuances between the technical terms is important for marketing green building products or selling to environmentally-conscious customers.
Why is This Important?
- More customers are asking it
- It’s an effective way to differentiate your products and your company
- Customers who value green will pay more
To help you tell your Green story, here’s a brief glossary of green construction terms that will help you communicate with customers more clearly and promote your products more effectively.
You also need to listen to what your customers are asking for and speak in their language. Customers used to ask about energy savings.
Being recyclable didn’t get you any more business. Instead, it was the icing on the cake after the customer had selected your product for another reason. Customers would say, “And it’s recyclable!”
Lately, I have been hearing customers ask about Carbon Neutral and Waste. As the terms change, you need to pay attention to what the term means to the customer. They may have a different definition of a term like Carbon Neutral than you.
What Does “Green” Mean?
Let’s start with the name itself. What does “green” construction even mean?
“Green” is the most widely used term in this segment of the industry, but it’s also the least specific. In fact, when people talk about green buildings, they’re sometimes talking past each other.
To one customer, a green building might be one that’s constructed from sustainable materials. To another, it could be one that consumes less energy, even if the materials themselves aren’t necessarily the most environmentally friendly.
“Green” is a useful shorthand, but remember that it doesn’t mean a whole lot on its own. If you’re selling to a customer who wants to build green buildings, you’ll have to ask more questions to figure out exactly what green means to them.
What Is Sustainable Construction?
Now we’re getting more specific.
“Sustainable” might sound like another word for “green,” but it’s really all about environmental impact. And sustainable construction is all about ensuring that the building process has minimal negative impact on the environment.
This is achieved in a number of different ways:
- Building with sustainable materials
- Reducing waste in the construction process
- Using energy-efficient building methods
- Working with contractors who also avoid waste and favor green materials and practices.
While there are regulatory standards that limit pollution and prevent construction companies from recklessly damaging the natural environment, sustainable construction refers to practices that go beyond those bare minimums. Often, the benchmark for sustainability is achieving Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
Sustainable construction practices can be applied to new construction projects and major renovations. By making sustainable choices during each project phase, customers can create more efficient spaces that use less energy, water, and other resources while generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to being good for the environment, sustainable construction practices often result in cost savings for building owners over the long term.
What Is Carbon-Neutral Construction?
Carbon-neutral construction is similar to sustainable construction, except that it’s a bit more precise and even more demanding. For a building to be carbon-neutral, it can’t just be better for the environment – it must specifically have a net-zero carbon footprint. In other words, the building’s greenhouse gas emissions cannot exceed the amount of carbon dioxide that is sequestered or offset by the building itself.
One way to achieve carbon-neutral construction is to use materials from renewable sources, or at the very least, materials that can easily be reused or recycled. For example, swapping traditional lumber for bamboo where possible, since bamboo grows more rapidly than trees, absorbs more carbon, and can be harvested without clear-cutting forests.
Energy-efficient design is another way to achieve carbon neutrality. For example, better windows and insulation will reduce the amount of energy needed to heat or cool a building.
In most cases, a combination of green materials and design will be needed to make a building truly carbon-neutral.
What Is an Environmentally Friendly Building?
“Environmentally friendly” is sort of like “green” – it can mean a lot of things, but all of them are in the same ballpark. Typically, an environmentally friendly building will be one that is built sustainably and can be occupied with little impact to the environment (although it may not be completely carbon-neutral).
There are many different ways to make a building environmentally friendly. Some common features of these buildings include:
- Solar panels to heat and power the building with renewable energy
- Green roofing that helps insulate the building
- Rainwater harvesting systems that collect and store rainwater for household use, reducing water waste
- Natural ventilation systems that use airflow to cool and heat the building, allowing for temperature control without using energy
To be truly environmentally friendly, a building has to be designed and built with the environment in mind from the start. However, it is possible to retrofit existing buildings and make them more environmentally friendly.
What Is an Energy Saving Building?
Energy-saving buildings are great for the environment, but they’re usually built with cost and efficiency in mind. These buildings are designed to use less energy overall, with a big focus on indoor temperature control.
These buildings will make use of:
- Energy-efficient building envelope design
- Advanced windows
- High-quality insulation
- Efficient HVAC systems
- Solar panels
By using less energy, these buildings generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions. They help combat climate change and improve air quality. But one of their biggest selling points is that they are light on the wallet. In both residential and commercial buildings, energy bills are a major revolving expense, and the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that energy-efficient investments can reduce energy costs by up to 30%.
What Is an Energy Efficient Building?
An energy-efficient building is a lot like an energy-saving building, but with a bigger focus on environmental sustainability. Like its energy-saving counterpart, an energy-efficient building will require far less energy consumption to keep its occupants comfortable. This can be achieved through a variety of means, like proper insulation, designs that let more natural light shine in, and energy-efficient appliances.
Unlike an energy-saving building, however, an energy-efficient one will need to meet certain green standards set by organizations like the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). USGBC is a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable building design and construction, while LEED is a green building certification program that provides third-party verification that a building has been designed and built using certain energy-saving strategies. Certification from either or both of them is expected for any building that claims to be energy efficient.
How Should You Describe Your Products?
When you’re describing your products, keep it clear and concise. Make sure you’re using accurate terminology (don’t claim your product is sustainable when it’s really energy-saving, for example) but don’t weigh down your customers with jargon and technical terms. Unless you’re talking to someone who really geeks out over green construction, that kind of language will muddy your message instead of making it clearer.
This probably goes without saying, but you also need to be completely truthful about the environmental impact of your products. Green is a selling point, but claiming that your product is sustainable when it isn’t will only damage the trust you’ve built with your customers and harm your company’s reputation.
Even if you’re not flat-out lying about your product, you could still be greenwashing it. That’s when companies falsely imply that their product is environmentally-friendly, even if they don’t outright say it. It happens when they call a product “clean” even though that doesn’t really mean much, or when they design packages in ways that visually imply that it’s better for the environment when it doesn’t actually do much for it.
If you’re not entirely sure about the language you can use, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provides guidelines on what kinds of environmental claims companies should make about their products. Most importantly, you should only make claims that are backed up by scientific evidence. For instance, don’t say your product is “100% recyclable” if it can’t be recycled in all cases.
You also need to decide how important your green story is. Is it just another claim to try to cover everything that may be important to a customer? The companies who are genuinely committed to being Green do better with Green customers.
It’s not just your product, it’s how your company operates. If your company has a real commitment to being Green you need to let customers know what you are doing.
Finally, make sure you and your customer are on the same page. Know the difference between carbon-neutral and energy-efficient. Understand that green construction practices aren’t the same thing as green buildings. And if you’re not 100% sure what your customer means when they ask you about Green, sustainable, or efficient products, don’t hesitate to ask them what they’re expecting out of the product or what problem they want it to solve.
You also want to understand what is motivating your customer’s interest in being Greener. While it’s easy to think the customer just wants to do the right thing, their real motivation is usually more self-serving.
When an architect, contractor, or distributor asks about Green, it’s probably because their customer is interested.
A homebuilder probably sees it as a way to sell more homes.
An owner may see it as a way to differentiate their properties. For example, universities want to be Greener to appeal to incoming students.
You’d be surprised how many sales are lost just because the marketing or sales team isn’t speaking the same language as the customer. Effective selling means understanding precisely what the customer needs, what problems they’re trying to solve and what would help them achieve their goals. But that’s impossible if you’re not communicating clearly.
So when you’re dealing with eco-conscious customers, make sure you brush up on the terminology first. It’s the only way to really get through to them and make them feel heard and understood.
If you would like to grow your building materials business, I can help. As the author of the industry bible, Building Materials Channel Marketing, and a consultant with over 30 years of experience increasing sales for 100+ building materials companies, I can help you reach a new level of success. Contact me today to learn more.