Marketing by Design: Sustainability Redux

Green certification programs for kitchen and bath designers
By Dick Wolfe
July 19, 2010

I received several excellent comments on the last column about consumers and sustainability, so thanks to all who wrote in and shared their views. Special thanks to Judith A. Neary, CMKBD, because her comment actually spurred the topic of this article. Judith was interested in certifications such as LEED, what they mean and how designers and other pros can talk “green” to their customers without confusing them or putting them to sleep.

In commercial building in the U.S., the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED program is the clear standard. However, Green Globes, an Internet-based system from Green Building Initiative (GBI), is beginning to gain traction here. Just to make it more confusing, there is a Green Globe international program that is also offered in North America, which focuses heavily on the travel and tourism industry. For want of an “s” a website was lost.


For residential, which is our focus, the picture is clearer, but also more competitive. There is a LEED residential program, which has been much slower to gain acceptance than its commercial counterpart. Then, there is the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Green Building program, which has gained a fair amount of traction due to being more flexible than LEED. Neither of these is in a dominant position as of yet.

What both the NAHB program and LEED for residential have in common is they are heavily weighted to new construction. There are remodeling aspects, but these are not nearly as well-defined. My take on this is for a kitchen and bath designer to become certified in either of these programs is probably overkill. Plus, trying to explain these certifications to a layman would be fruitless because a lot of building pros are confused by them. The LEED program in particular is highly complex.

Any professional whose main work is renovation would be better served focusing on the specific areas of the home and related products they work with. There actually is a green certification for remodeling professionals available through the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI). Their Green Certified Professional (GCP) program is comprehensive but, like the NAHB and LEED programs, it is a whole home process.

The one thing I have been unable to find is a green certification aimed specifically at kitchen and bath designers. The National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) has some fine green education programs, but no certification that I could see. Perhaps it might be time for one. A consumer wants to know your expertise in what they are hiring you to do. A certification related to that specialty is a symbol of that expertise. If you’re doing a bathroom, they probably aren’t interested in having you explain the green attributes of certain types of roofing.

This is not to say that it isn’t important to have knowledge of some of the broader aspects of the home environment, such as indoor air quality. However, any certification should be weighted to your particular area of work.


Regardless of certification, what you are selling is expertise. How you market it is determined by your audience. As was mentioned in the last article in this series, there are three kinds of consumers:

True believers: Green is the only choice for them
Utilitarians: Green doesn’t matter. They buy based on need, desire or price
Green-aware: Those with a desire to be green, but not at the expense of their budget

The second group is not really part of this discussion because their decisions tend to be solely motivated by need or desire. They could be people for whom price is no object. They just want what they want regardless of where it comes from, how it’s made or how much energy or water it uses. Others strictly buy based on lowest price, regardless of environmental impact. It’s the other two groups you need to know how to communicate with.

When speaking with a true believer, a high level of sustainability knowledge is required. Price is typically not an object because many true believers tend to be higher-end consumers and those who aren’t are committed to making the environmental investment. You’ll need to know about things like product life-cycle analysis and be able to explain where a product came from, how it performs and where it ends up. You’ll get questions like:

• “Was the wood in that cabinet harvested in a sustainable manner and can you prove it?”
• “What is the volatile organic compound (VOC) level?”
• “What is the recycling process when the product’s useful life is over?”

For the “green-aware/budget-conscious” consumer, the environmental benefit must be tied to a personal benefit. With products that use energy or other resources more efficiently and save on utility bills, the conversation can be fairly simple. With products where those type of benefits don’t exist, you’ll get questions like: “That’s great that the hardwood floor is from a sustainable forest, but it’s more expensive. Why shouldn’t I choose a less expensive synthetic product?” This is where you have to be able to speak to the not so obvious benefits like durability and increased home value. You have to really know the product.

What does the future hold? Environmental awareness among consumers will continue to grow in home building and renovation. Therefore, a professional certification will become more important as time goes on. It may even be required some day. More and more environmental legislation goes on the books everyday as witnessed by the recent adoption of the California Air Resource Board’s (CARB) formaldehyde standards as a national standard.

Right now, how green-savvy you are can be a marketing differentiator. Someday it may very well be table stakes to be in business.

Dick Wolfe is VP of Gibbs & Soell Inc., a leading independent public relations agency that specializes in the residential and commercial building and remodeling industries. As a part of G&S' Consumer Lifestyle and Building Solutions Practice, Wolfe brings deep experience as a trusted communications advisor to companies seeking successful brand positioning, marketing communications and visibility campaigns that focus on the design community. To contact Wolfe with questions and suggestions on topics for future articles, please email him at dwolfe@gibbs-soell.com.
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