A bit of advice for GBI’s new CEO: How to improve Green Globes’ sorry reputation and lack of market uptake
We hear that Jerry Yudelson has a brand new job as the latest head of the Green Building Initiative (GBI). Headquartered in Portland, Oregon, it has 35 organizational members (of which more then half are either timber, chemical or plastics affiliates) and a staff of 11 employees/contractors – it’s not exactly clear. What is clear, though, is that they haven’t hired a new president as much as they’ve hired a new sales-person-in-chief, who’s now in charge of putting lipstick on their floundering, imported rating system.
Mr. Yudelson has tried hard in his initial public remarks to avoid being seen as the latest “yes man” for the GBI of yesterday and today (let’s call it the “Old Green Globes.”) Instead he focuses on a very ambitious vision of the future, committing to essentially “reinvent” GBI in USGBC’s image, e.g., with a board that in “12 months” will make one think “Gee, that looks a lot like USGBC” or a president that provides a “public face” for the program “kind of in the same way Rick Fedrizzi does for USGBC” (read LEEDuser's recent blog).
I’m compelled to point out the obvious fact that Rick is so much more than a public face; he’s the acknowledged global leader of the green building movement, providing outsized leadership for both the infrastructure and inspiration required of something as global, game-changing and potentially life-altering as this movement has become.
This decision not to defend (or effectively co-brand with) the Old Green Globes has somewhat mitigated the community concern that Mr. Yudelson has talked himself into a deadly form of professional self-immolation. And yet, Mr. Yudelson talks with mind-boggling, borderline quixotic confidence about his new employer enjoying a “new beginning” and of the organization’s having “hit the reset button.”
It is fair, therefore, to ask whether he is deeply naïve to think he can single handedly make Green Globes the genuine change agent it clearly was never intended to be.
We are nothing if not a constructive, pragmatic and fair-minded crowd in the green building community. To ensure Mr. Yudelson is moving forward with his eyes wide open, I’d like to offer a little advice from a relatively seasoned rating system operation. What follows are some specific suggestions for Mr. Yudelson to consider that are genuinely aimed at helping him with his goal of leaving the Old Green Globes behind and reinventing GBI as an organization that could be something more than the institution charged with the perpetuation of the status quo for the plastics and timber industries.
1. Old perceptions die slowly. Avoid being mistaken for a Timber Lobbyist.
Challenge: The truth is that the person you are replacing in this job is an amiable timber industry lobbyist and you, up until this point in your career, are not. Inevitably, however, there will be those that will assume you have similar professional qualifications and viewpoints as your predecessor and will treat you accordingly.
Specific Guidance: Take steps early to distance yourself from anyone “bought and sold” by any specific industry (especially timber, vinyl and plastics) and openly revel in any accompanying outrage from some members of your board when you do this.
2. Ensure a focus on healthy buildings for people and not just efficiency for the sake of the bottom line.
Challenge: In pitching a rating system, it’s easy, even seductive, to focus exclusively on energy and water efficiency metrics. Because of its provenance, the Old Green Globes could not align itself with the increasingly mainstream trend toward building occupant health and well-being.
Specific Guidance: Ensure GBI engages constructively with those genuinely committed to improving supply chain transparency and the informed use of building materials that don’t compromise the health of the people in the building. At a minimum ensure GBI joins and advocates for manufacturer participation with the Health Products Declarations Collaborative.
3. Scrap the fantasy that Green Globes is just LEED by another name.
Challenge: Rob Watson, another longtime player in the green building movement and chair of the initial LEED Steering Committee, recently stated online that “if Jerry can move GBI away from their misguided insistence on LEED equivalency and reposition the standard as a gateway to LEED, he'll be a hero. If he continues GBI's failed strategy as positioning the standard as an alternative to LEED he'll end up a shill and a sell-out.”
Specific Guidance: Junk what Rob (and pretty much everyone else) recognizes as a “failed strategy” and focus on making Green Globes a non-controversial niche program for very cost conscious owners of small buildings. Crucially, to accomplish this strategy it will be necessary to actually make the 1,000 point Green Globes tool cheaper than its competitors.
4. Try (at least) to heed your own words about “not saying anything negative about LEED” or “getting engaged in anti-LEED activity as an organization.”
Challenge: Even as I write this, members of GBI are funding and implementing old school lobbying strategies aimed at – among other things -- ending Ohio’s successful green schools program and terminating (or limiting) use of LEED by state and federal agencies. It was clever of you to include the caveat “as an organization” to your statements about not being anti-LEED. Framing your response this way allows your members to independently continue their direct assault on LEED without your formal blessing. Clever, but also disingenuous. Moving forward I encourage you to stay true to the spirit of your words and ask your membership not to fund or participate in any slimy political LEED-bashing.
Specific Guidance: State and implement a policy preference for “choice” in rating systems rather than the direct or indirect banning of any particular system. When you make claims that under your leadership GBI will be very positive in tone, it’s important that in your very next sentence you refrain from using incendiary words like “mullahs” and “fatwas” in referring to LEED programs.
One could also argue quite convincingly that focusing on the lack of technical rigor and transparency around the development process, standards setting and certification process of the Old Green Globes would be a much better use of your time.
5. Consider an alternative to your recent “Give Green Globes a Shot” message.
Challenge: As a marketing person, you should know that it is generally not savvy to introduce a message that concedes that your product is risky or an outside bet. You may know that to be the case, and you’re just trying to be sensitive to the reality that it has not enjoyed any significant market penetration and is controversial within the environmental community as a form of greenwash, but don’t let that infect your messaging.
Specific Guidance: Stick with something like the “New Green Globes.” That approach only fails when the old product is beloved.
As a modest incentive to pursue these suggestions let me propose the following: If three or more of these ideas are pursued in the next six months I will personally take you to dinner the next time you are in Washington. If not accomplished – or worse you determine they will never be possible to accomplish – you might seriously reconsider your decision to attach your brand to Green Globes. Otherwise you should go ahead and return your LEED Fellow pin. It may turn out it will take 100 LEED Fellows to reinvent Green Globes, and nobody else is interested.