Living Walls and Biophilic Design is this just Greenwashing?

18 March 2020

Green Walls and Biophilic Design - are companies greening to Greenwash?

The term "greenwashing" was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. Greenwashing is the term used to describe the practice of twisting advertising campaigns to enable companies to present themselves as caring environmental ambassadors, when in reality it was quite the opposite.

But greenwashing dates back even earlier. American electrical behemoth Westinghouse’s nuclear power division was a greenwashing pioneer. Threatened by the 1960’s anti-nuclear movement, which raised questions about its safety and environmental impact, it fought back with a series of ads proclaiming the cleanliness and safety of nuclear power plants. One, featuring a photograph of a nuclear plant nestled by a pristine lake, proclaimed that “We’re building nuclear power plants to give you more electricity,” and went on to say that nuclear plants were “odorless [...] neat, clean, and safe”.

Some of these claims were true: in 1969, Westinghouse nuclear plants were producing large amounts of cheap electricity with far less air pollution than competing coal plants. However, given that the ads appeared after nuclear meltdowns had already occurred in Michigan and Idaho, the word “safe” was arguable. Westinghouse’s ads also ignored concerns about the environmental impact of nuclear waste, which has continued to be a problem.

Greenwash Discussion in The News 2020

in January 2020 Pro Landscaper Magazine asked for select companies to voice their opinions of Greenwashing in today's modern times:

Anna Roochove, marketing manager, Scotscape

All businesses have an obligation to behave in a way that is responsible for both the planet and their staff. With research from around the globe supporting the benefits that plants bring – mitigate the urban heat island effect, improve air quality and biodiversity in urban areas and being specified inside to support mental health and productivity – it is hard to argue against adorning our existing infrastructure with ‘green’.

As the vertical-greening industry evolves, improvements are being made. This includes better systems, reduced water use, irrigation using rainwater harvesting, faster quicker living wall maintenance and smart remote irrigation systems to monitor water use.

With 68% of the world’s population predicted to live in urban areas by 2050, it is key that the urban greening movement incorporates intelligent horticulture at the outset of new construction and landscape design, and this should never downgraded by value engineering.

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Chris Churchman, director, Churchman Thornhill Finch

Urban development is the primary source of global warming and yet, in the UK, it occupies less than 6% of our land area. For cities to pull their weight in offsetting emissions a fundamental shift is required in the way that we conceive, deliver and manage development, with healthy urban greening central to this process.

With elevations representing 80% of the surface area of any development, and so by definition 80% of the surface area of any city, and none of this surface considered appropriate for greening, attempts to rebalance the equation will continue to be of no consequence. Sustainability will only arrive when we embrace this vast untapped resource of the urban fabric, and green this eco desert. Green facades, as currently conceived, are irrelevant, meaningful vertical greening will only be effective and widely adopted when it as integral to the form of a building as its structure, not applied as some retrofitted green smear.

Living Wall hammock

Tim Waterman, senior lecturer in landscape architecture history and theory, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

Greenwash is a ubiquitous corporate practice and it takes many forms—from a benign but weak signifier of good intentions to outright deception. What identifies all greenwash is that it is a veneer applied to something that has not otherwise changed for the better. It is a new sweet coating applied to the same old bitter pill, a pill that isn’t healing anything but instead sickens us all.

The problems are systemic and rooted in injustice. The family who flies their private jet for an international shopping jaunt is darkly mirrored by the family who burns down a forest because of poverty’s desperation. That’s what the veneer of greenwash is hiding. Until we think of landscape design as the design of processes, practices, and relationships that have to be thought all the way through, rather than the deployment of empty forms and signifiers, we won’t make any progress towards sustainability, resilience, or regenerative and just design.

Ian Drummond, creative director, Indoor Garden Design

I think there has been a case of clients ” greening to greenwash” in the past but I feel that adding any greenery to a building is a step in the right direction so long as the design has been well considered and the planting scheme is well maintained.

I have noticed a real change in attitudes over the past 12 months possibly driven by the awareness of environmental issues. This issue is high up on the agenda as far as the public is concerned and has been driven possibly by the Extinction rebellion and the likes of Greta Thunberg via the media coverage and the social media platforms. We are now approached by clients and architects at a much earlier stage to discuss interior and exterior planting.

Biophilic Design is now very much on the Agenda and the results from the research from academics such as Dr Craig Knight, from the University of Exeter, in particular illustrate the important health benefits of having a well designed Biophilic environment to live or work in.

Stephen Fell, managing director, Lindum

I don’t think that anyone would dispute that green spaces are vital in the urban environment, and Céline Baumann is quite right to press for a bigger role of landscape architects in urban planning. Wrapping buildings in green vegetation to satisfy planning requirements can fall into the “tick box” category and needs examining more closely.

I have never wanted my company to be involved with green walls because of the distinct lack of sustainability in the concept. Having to power water around a system to keep plants alive, unnaturally growing in a vertical situation, does not seem to me to be a sensible use precious resource. Added to that the fact that systems break down, often over a weekend, and the result can be a very expensive wall of dying vegetation.

Green roofs on the other hand are a much more attractive proposition. Correctly designed and installed with an adequate depth of substrate and planted with species which will survive a low water environment, a green roof brings with it multiple advantages; attracting biodiversity, reducing urban heat island effects, slowing storm water runoff, as well as being visually pleasing. However, poor specification will result in poor results.

Anna French, director, Anna French Associates

Amazing that we even have to ask this question as we watch the forests burn, villages flood and island nations sink beneath the waves. Not to mention coral reefs dying, the oceans acidifying and a million of plants and animals at risk of extinction. Including us if we carry on as we are. We need to stop burning fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases and start implementing natural climate solutions such as large-scale tree planting and re-wilding.

So the real question to ask yourself is this: Is the company I work for doing everything in its power to help? This is the real question that we should be asking. If you find that they are purposely implementing a few showy green walls to prove their eco-credentials, but it is otherwise continuing with ‘business as usual’ then you have the right to be really annoyed about that. Do your research, gather some support and then get onto your bosses to make some big changes, there is no time to waste.

To conclude

All of the points made by our other industry colleagues here are equally valid. Ultimately greening with no thought brings no value to projects. The scope from natural landscaping to higher-tech smart horticultural solutions is broad and as an industry we are moving towards a greening solution for every surface, how any project, scheme or greening product is planted is crucial to bring genuine benefits in terms of biodiversity and air quality improvements to our towns, cities and indeed interiors.

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