Monday, June 1, 2009

LEED for Retail

Full disclosure: I am a LEED AP but, while working as a structural engineer, I (unsurprisingly) never had a chance to put my accreditation to use.

Upon reading a post entitled Sustainability Needs Educated Consumers on Sustainable Cities Collective, I was reminded of an issue regarding consumerism and sustainability that I have been meaning to explore: LEED for Retail. Backtracking quickly, the author of aforementioned article argues correctly that consumers have the tools (namely the internet) to educate themselves about how sustainable a product is before purchasing it. He notes that, unfortunately, we are unaccustomed to researching products ahead of time and seldom take into account the processes behind the product: material, production, packaging, shipping; that is, the "whole picture" required to ascertain whether or not the product in question is indeed sustainable.

Extending this line of thinking to the buildings in which these products are sold brings us to the subject at hand, LEED for Retail. My question is, can a sustainable building that sells unsustainable wares really be considered sustainable?

Take a hypothetical Wal-Mart in a retrofitted Brooklyn warehouse, replete with LED lighting, a green roof that collects rainwater for the fire protection system, located within blocks of the subway and bus lines, with solar panels on the roof, low VOC paint on the walls and bamboo floors, and you still have a Wal-Mart. Under the current business model it would sell toys, clothes and household goods that were made thousands of miles away in China, shipped across the Pacific, loaded on trucks, driven to distribution centers, transferred to delivery trucks, driven to the store, and stocked by folks who might have lost their job at a local store when Wal-Mart came to town.

Sustainable? I think not. Is building a LEED certified version of the store better than the traditional model? Yes...but wouldn't a comprehensive ranking system for sustainability focus on the use of the building rather than just the building itself?

I realize that such an assessment of the complete business operation is outside the USGBC's purview, but I wonder if, at least, any of the four innovation credits could be attained by selling, say, locally produced goods? In the most recent rating system (July 2008), a provision that automatically grants one credit for "green housekeeping" -- which is certainly a form of building use, though not its primary function -- has been struck from the innovation credits, but its ephemeral existence is reassuring.

As LEED (or other systems?) continues to evolve, it seems that the idea of exploring the "whole picture" -- the use of the building by its occupants, rather than just the building itself -- stands as the equivalent of understanding the processes that went into the production of your favorite new gizmo, doodad or thingamajig.

1 comment:

Scott Andrew Mueller said...

Great point Keith! It's a great first move, but it's just that... a first move. Wal-Mart has a very long row to hoe if their going to approach LEED as a business. And not just with their products... can LEED or some other socially/ecologically forward program also wrap in issues such as worker's rights and medical insurance? Employees working part time on $8/hr. aren't very "sustainable" either.