Empty Promises?
Jonathan B.
May 16, 2008

We've got a bone to pick with The New York Times. "The Promise of Green Paint," which ran yesterday, is the kind of story that's easy to get out for a writer under a deadline: compare an entire category of products to the status quo, raise questions, and conclude that this new eco stuff doesn't quite live up to expectations. The core problem was that the writer treated all green paints as though they were the same, rather than doing the kind of careful comparison necessary to evaluate green products.

We found three areas that would have benefited from more careful reporting around VOC content, durability, and certification—and they're all things you should weigh the next time you buy paint.

Pop over and read the article if you haven't already, then come back to see what we have to say about it.

VOC content. First, the biggie: the last line of the article hints at a big loophole, and it's one consumers should care about. That zero-VOC paint you just bought may actually contain VOCs. How? Paint gets its color from colorant, which is highly concentrated pigment squirted in to order. Off-white may have just a few drops of colorant, while a deep red paint may consist of more than 10% colorant by volume. Colorant is not usually included in claims about VOC content. The tinting machines that put the colorant into the paint are expensive, so most stores share one or two tinting machines for all the brands of paint they sell. The dominant type of colorant contain VOCs. Some brands, like Yolo Colorhouse, use zero-VOC colorant, but that requires stores to purchase a separate tinting machine, so many stores choose green brands that can be tinted with conventional colorants.

Certification. Second, Green Seal certification is one way to assess a product's green qualities, but a tell-all article should state that manufacturers must pay a steep fee for Green Seal's tests. Some manufacturers don't want to pay the fee, and others don't want to reveal their formula to a third party. Therefore, a product without Green Seal certification may be worse or better for the environment than a competing product with the seal. Green Seal is a optional certification, not a mandatory standard.

Durability. Third, a professional painter is quoted as saying, "they will tell you that the new latex is just as hard-wearing... but it's not." The "they" here is implied to be paint manufacturers, but we haven't seen paint manufacturers make this kind of comparative claim. Good manufacturers will readily admit that zero-VOC paints are less durable because VOCs are more effective than eco-friendly options at getting polymers in the paint formula to cross-link—which, in effect, turns the paint film into a single sheet of plastic. Yolo Colorhouse, one of the brands mentioned in the article, introduced a cabinet and trim paint recently... and has long recommended against using their other finishes on surfaces that require high durability.

We're all for reflection and critical analysis of green products, but writer Sarah Kershaw seems to have been unable to set aside her own assumption that green paint is categorically inferior to other choices. Looking at the question in finer detail would have revealed that some green paints, when matched with the right application, can actually be more functional and environmentally friendly.

image via NYTimes article online

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