Is Greenwashing Threatening Sustainability?


Environmental journalism, focused on the Paris Agreement, COP27 and the associated topics, is becoming saturated, and is resulting in apparent boredom amongst construction professionals when sustainability is raised. However, according to recent reports, the vigorous campaigning is warranted, and this is substantiated by increasingly extreme weather events.

The current approach across the world to the thirty-year-old concept of sustainable development in construction, is that of scrutiny and challenge. Business people find themselves over-messaged, resulting in sustainability for positive climatic change fatigue within built-environment circles.

Advocates in the industry are singularly focused and use conferences, continuing professional development programmes (CPDs), councils and governing bodies to coerce professionals into compliance. Those sensitised to the sustainability agenda are subjected to divergent information in an ever-increasing frequency. Against this backdrop of information overload, greenwashing of products is commonplace.

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when a company misleads the public (generally through marketing) into thinking their products/practices/services are environmentally friendly or have a more significant positive contribution to the environment than is true. Understating a company’s involvement in environmentally damaging practices is also considered to be greenwashing.

Tell-Tale Signs of Greenwashing

Societies both wealthy and poor experience the negative impacts of climate change. As a direct result, humankind is paying attention and increasingly considering aspects beyond the traditional when making purchasing decisions. Forbes reports, “Some businesses might participate in greenwashing without even realising it, simply because of the lack of universal standards around ESG reporting.” Often, messages proliferate making product performance claims that are not based on rigorous test results as brand building considers ‘eco-clean’ an essential pillar for success.

Active Steps to Avoid Greenwashing

Carbon emissions are no longer the domain of environmentalists and scientists exclusively: business people and the general population consider emissions in daily purchase decisions. Companies are increasingly becoming subject to scrutiny especially now that information regarding sustainability is more widely available. While industry insiders are often well-versed regarding sustainability, this does not mean that all messages aimed at the public align with reality. Listed below are some ways business people can avoid greenwashing:

  1. Organisational learning: Understand sustainability definitions and keep abreast of related laws or regulations. Additionally, the actions and approaches of entire supply chains to the organisation within the context of sustainability should be continuously monitored.
  2. Hype: Identify vague statements without credible performance literature to support them, such as ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘natural’.
  3. Identify the use of trade-offs: Companies offering ‘eco-friendly products’ that engage in production and waste management activities that are at odds with sustainability principles.
  4. Misleading visuals: Beware of companies using images of nature to portray the illusion of an organisation that is concerned with minimal impact on the environment. It may be that within their supply chain or factories a very different behaviour takes place.
  5. Conflicted sustainability claims: Assigning misleading descriptions to hazardous products, for example, ‘green asbestos’.
  6. Identify respected third-party certifications: These would include LEED, BREEAM, Green Star, Net Zero/Net Positive certification, Green Tag, EPC, EPD (full life-cycle analysis documentation).
  7. Sensitivity to false claims: It may be so that partial truths hide real activities that do not align with sustainability best practice.

Repurposing of the Existing Built Environment

The 13th edition of the Emissions Gap Report reveals that we are falling behind in the required pace of decarbonising to avoid reaching the climate tipping point. In order to avoid this taking place, the efforts to constrain temperature rise of 1.5°C must be intensified. Buildings and the construction process are identified as areas where meaningful reduction of emissions can be realised. Statistics published for the sector continue to highlight missed opportunities. The 2022 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction reveals the sector currently contributes 36% of global energy usage and 39% of (CO2) emissions – an all time high. The African continent has been identified through construction material usage and processes as a significant contributor. Studies highlight that the energy consumption of buildings is primarily attributed to heating & cooling. That is, should a structure perform poorly, more energy is required to attain a comfortable temperature for occupants. Architectural window films in this instance are a quick and effective solution to improve the thermal performance of an existing structure.

Retrofitting makes Sense

The African continent’s building stock is extensive, however many of these structures are either under or incorrectly utilised. Surveys reveal this to be applicable specifically to the economic nodes of metropoles. As such, the South African government has made efforts to repurpose and renovate dilapidated buildings. Maximising the performance of existing building stock through improving energy performance is key. Making use of materials and solutions with a low carbon footprint when retrofitting builds on appropriate structural design for energy consumption and carbon emission reduction. It can be argued that employing these strategies can rejuvenate the urban fabric of any city to strengthen the economy and well-being of society.

Delaying is Not an Option

Organisations must reduce emissions significantly to change the current trajectory. Furthermore, the private sector has a crucial role to play in illustrating the real value of transformation. Benoit Bazin, Saint-Gobain’s CEO, reiterated during COP27 that “sustainable construction can no longer remain niche in emerging countries. It must become the new normal.” Furthermore, synergetic collaboration between governments, councils and other relevant stakeholders within the private sector is an urgent imperative. Eco-innovation of construction products underpins net-zero responsibility, particularly in countries with advanced economies and technologies.

As unexpected weather events become more frequent due to climate change, increasing the resilience and adaptability of buildings is essential. The strategies can be intricate and often require informed professionals who can give guidance towards enacting sustainability.

Transparency and Third-Party Verification

Greenwashing gives rise to a trust deficit for companies who claim to have sustainability practices or environmentally friendly products, including those with legitimate claims. In the information age, facts can be checked quite easily. Companies who are determined to meet their Paris Agreement goals by 2050 are transparent in their conduct. As such, they usually make third party certifications public with Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and life-cycle declarations.

An Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is a declaration that illustrates the environmental information of a product by assessing product life cycle to enable evaluation of competitors. Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) are according to ISO 14040 and ISO 14044. EPDs are created and verified in accordance with ISO 14025. They are recognised by LEED, BREEAM and several other international bodies in industry.

The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the methodology used to assess the environmental impacts of a material, product, system or building over its entire life cycle.

Another notable effort implemented by the South African government is the gazetted requirements (mandated by the National Energy Act 34 of 1998 and the SANS 1544:2014) for Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs). According to SANEDI, as of 8 December 2025, building owners will be required to present certificates showing how their buildings perform. The building’s energy-use characteristic is recorded and rated following a colour coded system from A-G, similar to that seen on electrical appliances. The regulations apply to state-owned buildings with a total floor area greater than 1 000m2, and 2 000mand larger privately-owned buildings are also required to comply.

The Bottom Line

Greenwashing undermines the efforts of companies following sustainable practices, and complicates the decision-making process of conscious customers wanting to making the world a better home. The construction and property sector must be always vigilant, sourcing proven green products to support net-zero goals This will result in short-, medium- and long-term benefits for all stakeholders.

Article courtesy Bunny Bala, Technical Support Specialist at Saint-Gobain Africa


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