Confusing Acronym is Ripe for Greenwashing

There's a new green label afoot, DfE, which stands for "Design for Environment." It's a concept for sustainable product design, described on Wikipedia, promulgated by a number of US and European consultants and universities, and cited in CSI's GreenFormat in the Life Cycle section. Each source seems to cite a slightly different list of principles that comprise DfE. However, DfE is also a certification and labeling program offered by the US EPA for safer chemistry in cleaning and facilities management products. Unfortunately, because the term applies to both a general concept and a specific label, it's especially vulnerable to confusion. That makes it likely to be interpreted as greenwashing, even if the science behind the use of the term is sound.

Imagine, if you will: A building product is designed according to two of the principles of DfE cited in GreenFormat: "dematerialization" and "designed for disassembly". While updating the product web site to reflect the information shared in the GreenFormat entry, the marketing director wonders if he should use DfE on his web site. After all, the dish soap in his kitchen has a DfE label on it. Could his product have one, too?

The answer, unfortunately, is "Probably not." If a design professional sees DfE on the web site, will she know what it means? If she doesn't, the information is lost on her. If she thinks she does, but she can't find the product in the EPA's DfE product listing, she loses trust in both the label and the product. Even if she knows about DfE product design principles, the acronym alone doesn't tell her what makes the product sustainable. Instead of telling a green story, the term is meaningless, or worse, seems to be a lie.

If confusion is the culprit in greenwashing, specificity and clarity are the cures. Paints, cleaners, and floor care products that are entitled to use the EPA's label should use the entire logo. On the other hand, manufacturers of products designed according to DfE life cycle principles should name the specific properties and principles employed. These manufacturers should never let DfE stand alone in their literature. The industry doesn't need another confusing green acronym, especially this one.