Episode 25 – Why is Green Building so Expensive? And Other Misconceptions

Discover how you can green your life by building a knowledgebase of of current sustainable and eco-savvy trends.

In this episode, we will talk about why green building materials are so expensive and other misconceptions. We are here today with Jessica McNaughton, Julia Antennucci, and Alyssa Holland of CaraGreen.

JESSICA: Hi, this is Build Green Live Green. This is Jessica McNaughton with CaraGreen, and I'm here with Alyssa and Julia. And today we are talking about green and why it is so expensive, or in the case that we're talking about here, why is that a misconception, that green is actually not that expensive, in fact it may be cheaper or it may be the same price as what you're paying now. People have always thought that because something is green, it means that there must be more expensive ingredients or it's harder to get, so it must be more expensive. The reality is, green products are generally intended to be better alternatives or have taken steps towards being better than their traditional counterparts. So let's talk a little bit about green and kind of how we got where we are.

ALYSSA: So green as, kind of jumping back to when I started first hearing this term, I thought of it just as recycled paper or recycled plastic. So you would think of things that are very like cardboard-colored, things that just generally aren't that pretty. I thought there was limited uses, I wouldn't think of it as like a countertop. Things like that. But then stepping back now looking through the stages you can see you kind of shifted from that kind of “green” mentality to more of this “sustainability.” So things that aren't just necessarily recycled but maybe have a little bit more of a different story, like you said better alternatives. So maybe it doesn't have ninety nine percent recycled plastic, but maybe 20 percent and it has more color or it's more durable, things like that.

JESSICA: So I think you're touching on kind of how green has evolved, and when it first started, it was you know people coming out with these full on recycled or partially recycled products and people assume that “oh, this is recycled, they took garbage and they put it in this product so it should be cheaper, because they must have got this stuff for free because nobody wants it.” But that's not the reality when you're incorporating recycled content. It has to be cleaned, it has to be sorted, has to be either shredded or reconstituted in some way. So it was true that initially you know that recycling process and procuring those recycled materials over virgin materials could in fact be more expensive. The unfortunate side of it was that true, many of those products were also ugly, because aesthetics were not considered as a part of this. People thought that people would buy something just because it was green, because it had some environmental tag on it, and that really kind of leads to greenwashing. Alyssa, you want to kind of touch a little bit on greenwashing?

ALYSSA: Sure, yeah. So once this idea of green products started coming out, people just started slapping labels left and right all over different products that might just have a minimal amount of recycled content or a minimal amount of environmental consideration and they just slap a label saying “this is recycled,” “this is green.” Not even saying that it's recycling but just that it's green, it's healthy. Just making this common misconception that all these things are healthy when really they might not be.

JESSICA: Well I would say that health wasn't even a factor in the beginning, it was more you know implying that they had a positive environmental impact when in fact there was no auditing or overseeing body that was making sure that these claims were, A valid or B, that they even meant anything. There were a lot of these pay to play certifications that said, “I’ll give you a sticker with a leaf on it if you pay me $2500 per product.” And that was greenwashing and that was when people started really digging in over the first couple of years and they realized that what they thought was a valid certification was not and it casts a lot of doubt on the whole green industry. And you know, in my opinion, the term “green” really flamed out about six or seven years after it came into being a major factor and the reality was LEED, L-E-E-D for the listeners that may not know LEED is Leadership in Environmental and Energy design or- the E’s might be switched. But LEED came out as this building standard that you had to meet in order to achieve certification at different levels. Whether it was platinum, gold, silver, or just LEED certified, and people thought in order to build a green building, it had to be a LEED building and at the time that really was the only certification out there and the reality was LEED was expensive, but that didn't make green expensive, right? The term green has evolved. It's gone from being green to being sustainable. So everyone started calling their stuff sustainable, because “green” was a bad word. And then from sustainable, where we're at today, which is health. So the script got flipped and now we're talking about environmental health and human health. So green today is what we're talking about. It's our tagline. It's create better, create better products, create products that are better for us as people, create products that are better for buildings, create better products that are better for the environment.

ALYSSA: So we mentioned how that idea kind of evolved. How does that play into products?

JESSICA: Right. So you talk about human health, you talk about building health and environmental health, products can address all of those things at the same time. So you can have- I should step back a bit. You know, we talked about the term and how we got to health. Well another thing that evolved with green over that same period of time was the idea we talked about earlier, was that it was ugly. So it's not only expensive, but it's ugly. Well that has evolved over time and now these products are very attractive products, right? They can be very beautiful and they've incorporated what architects and designers want in mind. So they started out kind of as this manufacturing idea with no consult to the architect and design community to find out what they wanted these products to look like. That, over time those two have come together in the manufacturers making what the architect and designer wants to see. So take a product like EchoPanel. It's beautiful. It has all these different systems. It's acoustic and it's recycled plastic bottles. It's a great acoustic solution and it's beautiful. It's got a great story. So you know we talk about these products have now evolved to be about human health. Acoustic comfort is a huge part of human health. Color is a part of human health. Plastic and recycling it into acoustic panels is about environmental health. Less plastic going into the ocean or into landfill. So the intersection of beauty and health has really helped propel this “green.” As those two things have matured, so has price point right. You're making a beautiful product but you've also not just listened to the architect and designer, you've listened to the installers and you've had to be a certain price point or nobody's going to use it. So all of those things have come together and green today is really about making a better product. It's not about labels and false certifications anymore, it's about better products. 

JULIA: Circling back to, you know, price. So, even if the sticker might have a higher price, how will it be, you know, better value in the long term. You know, we talk about sustainability, what does that mean for the wearability and durability of a product too. 

JESSICA: Right. I mean I think in general for anything if you have a product that's more durable, it's probably going to be more expensive. Lapitec sintered stone is a great example. It is the best surfacing product that you can buy on the market. It is no resins, none of the bad stuff in it. It's just minerals. It's the best surfacing product you can use on your floor, on the outside of a building, use it for your kitchen countertops. It's not going to stain. There's nothing that can happen to it. Is it more expensive than entry-level granite? Yeah, because nobody wants that anymore. Is it more expensive than quartz?  Well, maybe it used to be but with all these tariffs on quartz, it really isn't anymore. So you're talking about products that have durability that is unmatched and they may be at a slight premium but in the case of Lapitec, isn't that worth it? You know, the forever countertop, yes that is worth it to me. Other products, EchoPanel is a great example. It's actually a more cost effective price point than a lot of acoustic solutions out there, and it's better looking. And you also have to consider products like PaperStone, right. PaperStone- not only is it economical, it's cheaper than a lot of hard surfaces out there. You can cut it yourself or you can use a fabricator depending on how you want to do it. But there's so many sizes. You can yield it out almost perfectly, there's all these different thicknesses. There are so many adjustments that you can make to get exactly what you need so there's not all that waste. Durat solid surface is another great example. It's up to 30 percent recycled plastics and if we make it, we make it here in the US now, in Georgia, and we can make that to size as well. So if someone yields out a certain length or they need it to be a little narrower or a little wider, that's something that we can also do to make sure that yields up properly. So with a lot of these products, working with the right manufacturers, the right distributors and the right installers, you really can get products that are what you need, so there's not all that waste. In that type of example those products are actually cheaper because you're yielding them out properly. So you asked you know how this, all of the green and health that we talked about really ties back to products and that's how- it's working with everyone in the mix to make sure that the environmental impact and the personal health impact are all considered and you can have cheaper products and the best part about that is those products have a great story.

ALYSSA: So all of these sustainable products, or green products as they were called, all have an individual story. What kind of things do we look for in that?

JESSICA: Well I think that, you know, a lot of manufacturers are starting to realize that, you know, designers don't just want a checklist of ingredients. When they look at a product, they want to be able to explain why they chose that product, and it's much easier for them to tell a story than to list off a bunch of statistics. Take PaperStone- it's up in the Pacific Northwest, which is lumber country, which is paper country, and it is a business that's run by people that are salt of the earth, people that really care about the product. They make skate ramps, which are fun, GatorSkins. They make concrete release forms. But their baby in a lot of ways is PaperStone and it is durable and very few people know exactly how many uses there are for PaperStone. But the idea that you can take recycled paper with this proprietary resin that was designed by Paper Stone, petroleum-free resin, and make this amazing versatile product out of it is a really great story to tell. When you look at that, you have no idea how the paper turned into this super durable stone. It's such a great story. And with Lapitec, it's the same people that invented quartz. They went back to the drawing board decades ago and said, “let's make something better.” And it's a family business and the family is still involved. They had such foresight to think about the environment, to think about maintenance, as you mentioned, to think about sustainability, removing silica so there's no breathing hazards like you have with quartz and granite and they really just engineered something. And it's really just coming to market no, but what a great story to think that the people that invented quartz, which has become so mainstream now, we're already innovating decades ahead to something that we have an absolute need for today, not only for human health of everyone from the purchaser to the home that it's installed in, but health of the environment where you're removing all those resins and there's no binders and petroleum like there is another materials. So the story is an important thing. I think at CaraGreen we make sure that every product that we have we know that story and when our sales reps go out they're not listing off features, they're telling the story of the products. And I think it parlays really well to the architects and designers who too can tell that story.

JULIA: And I think another part of the story for products like PaperStone is made in the USA and that for our customers who are in the United States talking about lead times, talking about availability and also talking about that story of a domestically made product. I feel like that's very important and it might be more of a higher cost but there are a lot of benefits.

JESSICA: Right. In the case of PaperStone, it's just, it isn't a higher cost. You know, it's one of the more economical surfacing choices that you can make. And you know some of the insulations that we have, Havelock Wool insulation, it's sheep's wool insulation, the Ultra Touch is denim insulation. Those are more expensive than pink insulation. But hey, what do you want in your walls? I mean, on a square footage basis if you thought about fiberglass versus sheep's wool or blue jeans insulation, that's in your walls circulating through your house, what do you want to be breathing and what are you willing to pay for that? So, when you talk about expensive, you know, and Mark Mitchell, the Whizard, always gets mad at me for talking about how green might be more expensive. There's not just a cost of the material itself, there is a downstream cost on human health, environmental health, and all of that. So when you think of cost, think about it in that larger perspective. You can't assume that green is going to be more, because I’ve already given some great examples where it's not more.  You've got to think about yield and sizes and things like that and a lot of people don't- they look at a square foot cost and make a decision. But if you think about the cost if you have to rip that pink insulation out of your walls and put something healthy in there or you know you get you have some mold issue down the road, I mean using a healthier insulation like Havelock. And Havelock has a great blog of their own on www.havelockwool.com, you can listen to their podcast, they really cover the sheep's wool insulation and a lot of those issues in depth.

JULIA: So at a certain point you know it's like you can't put a price on human health. 

JESSICA: No, no I don't think you can and I think even more so you know we've talked about biophilic design and that's incorporating green products, in my opinion, into a space. So if you have PaperStone countertops, that's biophilic design, it's warm to the touch and you have more engaged employees. So green is not, you know it's not, it's human health and productivity and efficiency. It's using products that evoke that in people. So when people see a recycled glass countertop like IceStone or they know something's recycled paper, it connects them to nature. It connects them to environmental health. So incorporating those things and allowing people to make that connection every time they see it, you know, they know the backstory and that falls on a lot of building owners. If you do make the choice to use green products, don't miss that opportunity to connect the people to the story. Tell that story whether you have a placard or you have a look book that walks through the different materials that were used. You architect, you designer, you own it. You made that great decision to use that product, let the people in the space connect to it and acknowledge that decision. That will engage them, that will make them prouder to be part of the company, prouder to work in that space, prouder to rent from that apartment building. But don't lose the opportunity to tell the stories of those materials, because in my opinion that's a very low cost way to put PaperStone on the lobby desk and have a placard there that says, “this is recycled paper,” and someone comes in looking to rent an apartment, I am way more likely to think that you care about me because you cared about the environment, you cared about that building, you made that choice and I can see it there. So I really think it's important that you people don't miss the chance to make that connection.

ALYSSA: One last misconception that I would like to bring up is availability of these products. So back in the day there was maybe one or two options, a recycled carpet maybe a recycled countertop, but really not much more than that. How have we seen that shift? I know we kind of focus on marketing here at CaraGreen, bringing in these materials to market, but overall what are we seeing, what are the trends for this? 

JESSICA: I think when “green” first came out, people came out with a lot of different colorways and SKUs and they were trying to figure out what people might want or they had too limited a number. And people didn't want it. So it would either get dismissed out of hand or there were too many options, which means your lead times are extended and then it was seen as you couldn't get it. The supply chain has matured through companies like ours, through distribution, through marketing, you know, the marketing efforts that we've undertaken. We've created a lot of awareness for the products that we carry and with social media, marketing awareness is not bounded by geography, whereas with distribution you may have been bounded before. Sampling- a lot of companies are sample ready now, that has been a big deal. But just general awareness has increased and with that awareness comes fabricators, comes millworkers, comes installers and the material has had to get to a point where you can get it quickly, because people, they need to know. And so I think a lot of things happened. I think that you know in some cases people settled on what were going to be their standard options and they got into the process of making those readily available. In the green materials space, honestly, you've got to have something available within two weeks, maybe four to six if it's custom. But that's when people need materials and I think that the green industry learned that if you were going to be in this industry, you had to get your lead times down and I think it's taken some time. But I mean I don't see excessive lead times to the extent that we used to, maybe eight or nine years ago. Another thing I will say, and you alluded to made in the USA Julia, a lot of green products, because Europe tends to be so far ahead of us, were coming from Europe. They're being sourced from other countries and now obviously a lot of materials come from Asia as well. But when you're looking for healthy building materials, made in the USA is really going to help your lead times. Products like Lapitec, I told you they rolled out with excessive forethought and that includes a network of distribution that means the product is here when you need it. But you've got to either have, if you're going to be a European or if you're going to be bringing material in from another country, you need to have a distribution that allows it to be available because nothing is going to hurt your product more at its launch and when people aren't able to get it. Because those people that want it that can't get it, they basically cut you off for good because that's the perception now is that it's a material that you can't get. So if you're coming from Europe in your sustainable material, example we've given is Durat which is made in Europe, Finland, as well. That's another lead time one where we set up US  manufacturing. That is now, like I said, you're looking at two to four week lead times at the most for these materials. And you know for us for example, I mean our warehouse, we have how many different SKUs? Hundreds of different SKUs that are in stock and readily available, because I think you learn your territory as well and you know what sells. And as a distributor you have to stock those materials so that we have people stop by every day and pick up sustainable products from us.

JULIA: Awesome. Well I think we covered a lot of misconceptions and cleared the air for a lot of these building materials.

JESSICA: Yeah I think we covered the evolution of how “green” got distorted by greenwashing and false claims. It got turned into the term sustainable which obviously that wore out its welcome as well and now you're starting to see people really focus on health, and health is personal. When you start talking about how your product impacts me personally, then you're accountable for that. So I think this shift towards health has really people put more value on health than they do on green. So I am willing to pay maybe a little bit more for a healthy material, maybe a lot more for healthy material. Maybe I'm not willing to pay more at all. But green today does not fit into a single one of those categories. There are products that are cheaper that are green, there are products that are the same price that are green and there are products that are more expensive. You've got to decide when it comes to your health, the health of your family, the health of your office, the health of the planet what products you want to choose. So with that, that wraps up our 25th episode of Build Green Live Green. I'm Jessica McNaughton with CaraGreen.

JULIA: I'm Julia.

ALYSSA: And this is Alyssa. Thanks guys.