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Greenbuild 2011: Green movement just as strong north of the border

TORONTO—Despite the crowds not being as big as last year; despite the absence of a number of well-known flooring brands from the sold-out exhibition floor; despite much of the world continuing to struggle to climb out of the economic pit it has been in, the 10th annual Greenbuild International Conference & Expo not only proved to be beneficial to those who participated, the event showed the green building movement remains strong throughout the world.

This year marked the first time the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), held Greenbuild outside of the U.S. And while Toronto proved to be an admirable host city based on its strong green building and sustainability/quality of life platforms, according to many it was probably the main reason why attendance reached “only” 23,000—a drop of more than 17% compared to last year’s record-breaking event in Chicago. The move north of the border was also credited as to why some companies decided to opt out from exhibiting this year—based on the expense of taking their exhibits outside the country and fear of people not wanting to make the trip.

Nonetheless, a strong opening general session featuring renowned leaders such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Friedman and ABC News political commentator Cokie Roberts, capped with a rousing performance by the Grammy award-winning band, Maroon 5, had the Air Canada Centre filled with enthusiastic attendees from more than 100 countries.

And, when it came time to hit the exhibit floor at the nearby Metro Toronto Convention Centre to see 1,700 booths showing the latest interior and exterior green decorating and building products and technologies, or head into one of the hundreds of educational sessions offered during the five-day event it was clear that Greenbuild maintained itself as the world’s largest conference and expo of its kind.

In fact, Friedman talked about the necessity of a green revolution, saying “We’re not having a green revolution— right now—we’re having a green party. In revolutions, people get hurt—companies are forced to change or they die. Our revolution will be here when the word green disappears. The challenge we have today is that we must become the regeneration.”

A study release by McGraw-Hill Construction in conjunction with the show, noted how the green movement is firmly established in the design and construction workforce. The company said this is the first study to focus exclusively on design and construction professionals and trades workers.

According to the report 35% of architects, engineers and contractors (AEC) report having green jobs today, representing 661,000 jobs and one-third of the industry workforce. That share is expected to increase over the next three years, with 45% of all design and construction jobs being green by 2014. “Green jobs” are defined as those involving more than 50% of work on green projects or designing and installing uniquely green systems while excluding support or administrative professionals and manufacturing, production or transportation-related services.

“Green jobs are already an important part of the construction labor workforce, and signs are that they will become industry standard,” said Harvey Bernstein, vice president of industry insights and alliances for McGraw-Hill. “These numbers reported by the industry match our Dodge green building market sizing; so as green takes over construction activity, so too will green take over the construction workforce.”

Leading the way

Within this framework, the flooring industry remains a recognized leader in terms of not only getting things done, but doing so the right way. One of the things to stand out this year was the push for companies to walk the walk by having their green/sustainable claims certified by a credible, independent third-party.

This goes beyond life cycle analysis (LCA)—the buzz phrase in recent years—noted a number of flooring manufacturers and organizations who are in the process of putting forth product category rules (PCR) to create harmonization for developing environmental product declarations (EPD) in accordance with internationally recognized standards.

EPDs are more common in Europe and other parts of the world and are now making their way to the U.S. as companies such as InterfaceFlor push to have one for all its products in the near future.

Put simply, an EPD allows end users to see a product’s full environmental story. And, because they are based on following agreed upon “rules” for evaluating a product, it allows people to make an informed decisions by being able to compare things apple-to-apple, rather than trying to guess which system was used to generate a product’s green attributes. What makes the process even more transparent is it enables the comparison of not just similar flooring products— carpet-to-carpet, resilient-to-resilient, etc.—but products from different categories.

The importance of EPDs could be felt as the U.S. government has shown an interest in them and is considering making them a requirement for products used in federal projects.

“There’s a little more buzz on EPDs as more people become of aware of them,” said Mikhail Davis, manager of strategic sustainability for InterfaceFlor. “They are staring to get familiar with EPD but there is still a great deal of education needed in teaching them how to use it for specifying a project.”

Beyond EPDs, flooring companies were seeing more than their share of attendees interested in hearing their sustainable message as well as gaining a better understanding of what they had to offer and why it is green.

High interest

According to some, the interest level was at an all-time high, despite the lower attendance figures. “We’ve seen more people from the U.S., especially from the government and military than ever before,” noted Randy Gillespie, Expanko’s senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Jack Boesch, director of marketing for MP Global Products, said coming into the show he didn’t know what to expect being that it was in Canada, but “traffic has been really good—and last year was pretty good. We’re going to run out of samples before it’s over.”

Going back to the aspect of walking the walk, he noted, “The crowd here is very cognizant of greenwashing. People are asking if a product is third-party certified, what is the level of recycled content and so forth. So you had better be able to back up what you’re talking about and proclaiming on labels and literature.”

While most companies were showcasing their green products, some took a different approach. For example, at the Shaw Industries booth, the only product was on the floor—recyclable carpet surrounded by its recyclable Epic wood (In the name of full disclosure, the company’s carpet was once again used throughout the aisles of the exhibit halls. In fact, this was the second year the same carpet was used and, under an agreement with USGBC, when it reaches the end of its useful life, Shaw will take it back and recycle it).

Instead, Emma Williams, Shaw’s environmental communications manager, said the company wanted to create a “discussion” on sustainability, rather than simply talk about its floors. “It’s one thing to talk about problems you have solutions for; it’s another to discuss things that we as a society are in the process of trying to answer. It’s not about what we’ve done or about flooring; it’s about focusing on the big picture—where do we go from here as we’re all global citizens, be it people or companies.”

Paul Murray, the company’s vice president of sustainability and environmental affairs, added, “This show is a very educational opportunity and that’s what we want to do here without turning on the fire hose and showering them with products.”

Did the concept work? “I think so,” Williams said toward the end of the show. “Our people were engaged in solid conversations with people on issues that matter and in the end it helps us be a better company.”

(Editor’s note: Watch for more coverage of what flooring companies had to say and offer at Greenbuild in FCNews magazines and online.)

-Matthew Spieler