It’s not easy, being green – are green building certifications just greenwash?

Posted on: 24 January, 2024

Certifications like BREEAM and LEED have been lauded in sustainability circles, but just how much importance should be placed on them?

If you’ve had any experience in the built environment, it’s likely you’ll have come across green building certifications like BREEAM and LEED. These sustainability standards are becoming a must-have for projects and infrastructure at every stage of the construction lifecycle, and regardless of a property’s intended use.

Learn more: Understanding green building certifications – why should you get one?

The evidence appears to support the importance of these accreditations, too. Research from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) found that Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings produce 34% less CO2 emissions and save 80 million tons of waste from landfills.

When it comes to selling the property, certified buildings can often provide greater return on investment, with Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) certified developments found to have 20.6% higher capital value on average than their counterparts.

While these certifications and standards are popular, they aren’t without their critics. With new standards being launched every year and more and more businesses hopping on the sustainability bandwagon to greenwash their image and activities, sceptics are questioning their validity.

This all begs the question – are green building certifications actually worth the paper they’re written on, or are they just another example of greenwashing?

Why green building certifications are so popular

Sustainability sells. Once seen as purely a ‘nice-to-have’ aspiration to satisfy fringe stakeholders, consumer pressure and government legislation have placed it at the forefront of the business agenda. More significantly, however, is how sustainability is transitioning from an environmental movement to a commercial one.

Learn more: Making a business case for sustainability: why now is the time to act

Incoming generations of consumers, customers, and stakeholders care about being green more than ever before. They will actively seek out companies that are involved in environmental causes – even if the product or service they purchase ends up costing them more. Simply put, being active in sustainability is no longer an option, as it’s likely the rest of the marketplace is already doing it.

Being sustainable is also having an impact on the bottom line. In the built environment, focusing on sustainable energy and resource usage can drive down expenses and improve efficiency, while opting for greener construction methods like prefabrication can streamline the construction process and reduce costs of things like labour hours and site security.

Green building certifications fit into this shift towards sustainability by offering a variety of commercial benefits for construction firms, businesses and property owners, namely:

  • Increased return on investment
  • Enhanced brand reputation and visibility
  • Maintenance and operational cost savings
  • Potential tax incentives

As with other emerging initiatives that offer commercial benefits like Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), it’s important to address the risks that come with a growing market for sustainability.

Learn more: The criticism of ESG – why is it becoming controversial

Why BREEAM and other certifications are coming under fire

Here are some of the potential drawbacks of green building certifications:

1. They focus too much on operational carbon emissions

One of the chief criticisms of standards like BREEAM and LEED is their focus on operational carbon emissions – in other words, the emissions produced from a building’s usage. This focus excludes the embodied carbon emissions produced in the construction process, and subsequently fails to reflect the ‘true’ sustainability credentials of a building – especially when embodied carbon can account for half of a building’s lifetime emissions.

As architect Andrew Waugh commented in an interview with dezeen,“The certification systems still focus on operational carbon… They’re meaningless. They are awards that prop up the existing systems.”

2. They’re outdated and don’t go far enough

BREEAM and LEED were both created over thirty years ago, and while they’ve received various updates in that time, their relevance and ability to reflect the latest sustainability concepts and principles is a topic of contention.

Many also believe these certifications don’t go far enough. While they focus on environmental factors (with others like the WELL BEING Standard incorporating physical and mental health), their breadth is confined to structures themselves, and an asset’s impact to society, business performance and the behaviour of individuals isn’t considered.

As Richard Wheal wrote of BREEAM for The Guardian:

“BREEAM can be a really helpful methodology for embedding sustainability into buildings from the outset and pushing developers to think about environmental factors. But it is fundamentally flawed because it fails to take into account the whole picture (e.g. social impact) plus it isn’t flexible enough, meaning that some innovative, sustainable buildings cannot get the credit they deserve.”

3. They can be misleading (and difficult to maintain)

While green certifications look good and can support brand reputation, they can also be misleading and fail to reflect the true environmental credentials of a property or business. This can occur when a building receives multiple accreditations that, in actuality, reflect the same assessment methodologies, or when a business/property owner selectively discloses credentials that present a more positive picture than the reality.

Learn more: 8 types of greenwashing (and how to spot them)

What’s more, updates to certifications like BREEAM mean that maintaining a building’s rating and accreditation in the long-term can be difficult. This can be seen as both a positive and a negative – while it’s reassuring that standards are updated to reflect new research, it can also lead to unnecessary expense purely for the sake of keeping up with accreditation, rather than improving sustainability.

4. They’re easy to manipulate (and can’t be 100% accurate)

Some green certifications don’t represent a wholistic view of sustainability, which can lead to irregularities that dramatically impact the end rating a building receives. For instance, it’s more difficult for a naturally-ventilated building to receive a BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rating than a mechanically-cooled one, which, ironically, means air conditioning appears to be favoured over windows.

Similarly, these certifications are also open to manipulation, as buildings can be overly rewarded for shiny new sustainability features and innovations, rather than the true sustainability performance and credentials of the project itself.

In some cases, they can also get it wrong – take the Empire State Building, which received LEED Gold status but was later found to have major energy efficiency issues.

5. It’s become too commercial and certifications aren’t standardised

BREEAM, LEED and WELL BEING are far from the only green certification options on the market. More and more standards are emerging every year – some with differing emphasis on new environmental factors, but many with the same basic methodology and rating systems. This creates confusion, as with so many standards available, it can be difficult to know which ones matter, or which are actually the most valuable to a specific business or stakeholder.

Furthermore, the lack of uniformity among new and existing certifications presents yet another dilemma. As with ESG, no standardisation across metrics and ratings across country and region makes it difficult to compare and validate results. This impacts transparency difficult and can hamper stakeholder decision-making.

So what’s the verdict – are green standards worth your time?

Green building certifications undoubtedly have their place in an organisation’s sustainability strategy. As well as presenting a positive company image for stakeholders, employees and customers, they can also reflect the sustainability credentials of a business when applied correctly.

However, these certifications should not be followed blindly. Many accreditations on offer simply don’t reflect the entire picture of a building’s environmental impact or fail to reflect what truly makes a building sustainable.

With this in mind, businesses and property owners should spend time deciding which certifications work for them, and focus on accreditations that will accurately reflect both the sustainability of a building throughout its lifecycle and the wider impact it has on society and the environment.