The Greenwash Brigade

Angie’s List invites (encourages) 400,000+ companies to greenwash

Janne K. Flisrand Dec 19, 2008

Angie’s List is providing new tools and incentives for small and large companies across the country to slap on some green paint. They provide consumer-generated reviews for more than 400,000 companies nation-wide.

As the owner of a 105-year-old, four-unit apartment building, I do my fair share of hiring people to fix things up. I, too, joined Angie’s List to help sort through the options.

Yesterday, I noticed that The List had added an “eco-friendly” designation to their ratings. I checked out the architects – a small set of companies in the Twin Cities with whom I’m fairly familiar – to see who got the ranking and who didn’t. What I saw didn’t bear much relationship with what I know about the practices and work of the architects on the list.

I started to dig in – first wondering how companies got the “eco-friendly” designation. I found a members only FAQ definition: “Eco-friendly: company utilizes green work practices and/or materials.”

A public FAQ entry gives a little more detail.

Can I search for companies that are green on Angie’s List?
Yes! On the search results page, you can sort by the “eco-friendly” column heading so those companies that have registered their green certifications with us appear first. There are currently seven designations and a separate icon for each. These certifications are self reported by each company.

I didn’t understand the “seven designations,” but thankfully they acknowledge that certifications are self-reported (if you read the FAQ).

Knowing the length of many category lists, getting sorted to the top of the list provides a hefty incentive to say “yep!” when Angie asks if you’re “eco-friendly.” (Plus, you can now justify upping your prices by 10%, because everyone knows green always costs more.)

I wrote to Angie’s List to ask for more detail. Tony responded, justifying self-reports. “In other words, we’re taking the company’s word for it, which is fair since any company claiming a certification it doesn’t deserve risks being found out the first time one of our members gives their service a try.” Assuming members know how to verify the “certification.” And bother. Would you know if your ducts were properly sealed when you installed AC in your house? Or whether the SEER they recommended was eco-friendly?

I also clicked for an hour and figured out about the “seven designations.”

  1. LEED Accredited Professional
  2. Energy Star Partner
  3. Green Building Professional (Green Organizations to which you belong)
  4. Lead Safety Program
  5. Professional who uses Green Products or work practices
  6. National Association of Remodelers member
  7. National Association of Homebuilders member

The first two are useful certifications. 3, 4 & 5 are as valid as the language service providers type in. (I read one that was hogwash.) The last two, who knows. Sometimes there’s a link to the NARI or NAHB Certified Green Professional web page, sometimes not. I couldn’t find any detail on what the designations mean on the website.

And, I’m not sure whether it’s a software bug or what, but in clicking through on 30+ companies with “eco-friendly” designations, I found several whose detail page said, “This company has no Eco-Friendly accreditations.”

Angie, you’re not doing anyone any favors by skipping third-party certification. You could at least tell members how to verify their designations – and give a word of warning. You have created the most efficient tool I’ve yet seen for broad-based, unreliable eco-self-promotion.

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