Environment and Climate

Greenwashing in the time of climate change

By Mallika Sarabhai / DNA

If someone were to ask you, which route you preferred while travelling from Delhi to Chennai, the options being via Jammu and via Chandigarh, what would your response be? If someone asked a poor village whether she preferred milk with four per cent fat to that with three per cent, what would her answer be? If someone asked a friend whether, in case he developed cancer, he would prefer cancer of the lungs or the stomach, what would his answer be?

Some questions are stupid, not because their answers will be stupid, but because the framing of the question itself is faulty. The current backslapping and self-congratulatory award functions organised by the "green" building lobby and the institutions that certify the depth of the greenness of the buildings, remind me of questions like these.

Without doubt, inherently, India is the most "recycling" society. Yes, today this may be poverty-driven; but think of the number of crafts that have developed from this basic attitude of not wasting and of being frugal. The beautiful kantha embroidery is just one such, where old and softened clothes are layered into soft coverings for a baby. It is really Western modernity that has brought the throw-away culture to us, with modern-day packaging and one-shot products huge culprits. But what has this to do with architects?

In the early 1990’s, the US set up LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — to certify buildings that made an effort towards cutting down on the huge energy bills that US buildings ran up and to encourage architects to think smaller than jumbo size. But the US was already a country that was overusing resources vastly.

So when, in typical fashion, we copy LEED in India, should we be doing so with the same or similar parameters? After all, we consume a tiny portion of the electricity and gas they do. So shouldn’t we be thinking of this differently? Here are two examples of why mimicking the West in this is really daft.

Because of cold climates and very grey skies for much of the year, many buildings in the West started using huge amounts of glass. This heated the insides and brought in lots of light. Most of India is hot or hotter. But we still copy our "betters" unblinkingly, so lots of architects here too started using huge amounts of glass, thereby needing even huger amounts of electricity for the extensive air-conditioning systems. The LEED criteria suggest that if a building façade is less than 50 per cent glass, it qualifies as a green building! But shouldn’t we be trying to build without glass and not use the extra energy in the first place? Shouldn’t we be using passive cooling that is so successful that it circumvents the very need for air conditioning? (And now, to further greenwash us, there is even eco-friendly glass, that assuages the slight guilt that architects might suffer from, and to qualify for accreditation as a LEEDS architect or building.)

Another example: Using local building material gets you points as a green builder. But what is the definition of local? 50 km? 100? 200? No, for this the definition of local is 500 miles! That means that if you were building in Nagpur, Delhi and Hyderabad are both considered local and therefore get you green points. But I suppose for architects who normally import Carerra marble from Italy, this would be a change for the better.

Building bhungas in Kutch that withstand earthquakes is green. Using traditional lime plaster that keeps homes cool is green. Using bamboo frameworks for buildings and for low-cost windmills, if you are in bamboo country, is green. Using rammed earth or sun-dried mud blocks instead of kiln-baked bricks is green (and safe — mud buildings in Yemen have stood 1,000 years with minimal damage. And look at our concrete buildings from the 1960’s and 70’s.)

But to play by American rules and get certifications, citations and awards for reducing wasteful building methods and materials, which shouldn’t be used in the first place, is no more than greenwashing the truth.

One reply on “Greenwashing in the time of climate change”

It’s hard to believe that LEED has been around since the 1990s and it’s only just now catching on! I hesitate to say that companies are greenwashing still. I’d like to think we’re beyond that, but I suppose we’re not. Nearly every article I read about LEED has to do with another building become certified. It must be hard for companies to compete if they’re taking the same steps. I just don’t want to call it greenwashing. I can’t help but think people are actually trying to take more sustainable steps without getting some kind of recognition.

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