Shades of Green

One common theme has emerged from our discussions with targeted adopters of sustainability: Everyone is asking, “What does it mean to be 'green'?”

  • Tenants are asking real estate brokers to help find "green" office space; but when asked, few are able to translate their request into building characteristics and specifications. Real estate brokers want to help, but are not certain about what their tenants really want.

  • Builders and developers interested in developing green communities often learn that their vision of “green” may be very different than the expectations of local officials, permitting and planning agencies, community leaders and home buyers.

When willing adopters encounter confusion, they often walk away in frustration.

So, what does it mean to be “green”?

Types and Dimensions of Green

Over time, "green" has become common jargon among environmentalists, businesses, government and communities to distinguish environmentally-friendly choices from other alternatives. In this very broad context, "green" can refer to nearly anything – from bodies of policies, programs and practices; to design and development techniques, types of resources and materials, and technologies.

In the context of green design and development, there are many different types and levels of "green" – from those that focus primarily on energy use (e.g., U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star® program) to those that attempt to more comprehensively consider the impacts of the built environment on our natural environment and resources (e.g., U.S. Green Building Council's "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED™) Green Building Rating System™).

The highest levels of “green” take a holistic approach that encompass multiple dimensions of sustainability, including energy and water use efficiency, renewable energy, transit-oriented design and development, green materials, and green construction practices. The highest levels of "green" also add a time dimension – a life cycle assessment that considers all environmental impacts over the life of a particular building or development, from the manufacturing processes that developed the building materials to be used, through construction, operations, and finally, demolition and removal or recycling of building materials and infrastructure.

In order to communicate the level of green actually achieved by a building or a development, a number of different types of certification programs have evolved. Below are the primary types of green certifications that are recognized in California. Each green building brand, or label, has its own set of criteria. In addition, there can be different levels of certification. For example, the U.S. Green Building Council recognizes 4 levels of achievement: LEED™ Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum.




The sheer breadth of green choices – materials, design, building techniques, operations -- is confusing to developers and owners alike. In fact, understanding what green means has been consistently cited as a major barrier to implementation of sustainability by many stakeholders, both public and private. This challenge is made more difficult by the multitude of types and levels of green certifications.

Shades of Green
The California Sustainability Alliance (Alliance) is helping to streamline and simplify the green choice by developing a customizable approach that can be applied by California governments and businesses to develop the suite of green options that best meets their joint needs and interests. To facilitate decision making, the Alliance is compiling a suite of checklists, models and tools to help willing adopters find the "shade" of green that works for them.