[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the February/April 2004 print edition of Free Liberal.]
The most important vote people make is with their pocketbooks. Political winds may change but the market determines what has staying power and what is merely fad. For any new product, technology, or service to endure it has to make sense to consumers who are willing to pay the price over time. When self-interest is recognized in a new paradigm, it has greater likelihood to make it in the market than if it is only a feel good or altruistic purchase.
Green building is just such a new paradigm of home.
Mr. and Mrs. Jones, if you could have a new home that is more comfortable, is healthier, requires less maintenance, AND saves you money month to month, would you buy it or would you rather have a conventional home for roughly the same money?
It is a rhetorical question in most situations. Green homes meet buyers where they live. When a builder in a market learns how to provide the benefits that green attributes provide, he sets himself apart in the marketplace and never looks back. Green building not only benefits the homeowner and the builder but is much lighter on the environment by reducing impacts on old growth forests, reducing energy needs from fossil fuels, minimizing health impacts from products that give off gas toxins into both the interior and exterior environments, and helps conserve our precious fresh water supplies.
Sounds like win-win business.
Not all consumers are created equal, however. Depending on their world view, different aspects of green building are more attractive than others.
For more internal and security minded folks, the health and safety of green homes is most important. Many mothers are very careful about the food their children eat, often organic, and the water they drink, typically filtered. Green homes provide better indoor air quality by eliminating many of the products that release toxic chemicals as they cure. (Think of paint drying, it dries because it releases volatile organic compounds into the air.)
For others having as little to do with the system as possible is a major selling point. These are the consumers in revolt with the consumer society and our dependence on foreign oil. For them, straw bale houses with photovoltaic solar systems that allow them to live off the grid are most attractive.
For more traditional American values green building is just applied common sense. If every dollar we spend on energy leaves the community and doesnt circulate to create sales tax revenues, it makes more sense to conserve energy and spend the savings on dinner, movies, and flowers for the wife. Those dollars help pay for teachers, police, and civil servants.
Of course, for the strategic investor, if the investment in a green home has a better return on the dollar, that is where his money should be placed. To a business-oriented homebuyer, saving money monthly on energy bills reduces overhead and offers more disposable income.
The 60s created an entirely new brand of consumer. They are the market demand that created organic food sections in national chain grocery stores. They read labels, belong to environmental organizations, and care about the planet. For them, preserving old growth forests, cleaning up pollution at factories, using non-toxic products, and minimizing the human footprint on the earth are the selling points.
The benefits of green construction are equally powerful to each group of consumers. The onus however is on the builder or realtor to understand who is buying the home and how to communicate those attributes in a language that addresses the value systems of each potential customer.
For other innovative technologies to survive in the marketplace, understanding how the improvement relates to conventional market forces is paramount. For the environmentalists in the world it is an important understanding that money is not spent for the good of the planet. It is spent on what benefits us, our families and our communities. When sustainability is seen through the lens of self-interest, it will be the inevitable consequence of market forces.