How to Use Alternative Building Materials While Avoiding Greenwashing

How to Use Alternative Building Materials While Avoiding Greenwashing

How to Use Alternative Building Materials While Avoiding Greenwashing

What are alternative building materials?

Alternative building materials are any natural or recycled materials used in construction as an alternative to conventional building materials like concrete, steel, and lumber. Some examples of alternative building materials include:

  • Bamboo – A fast growing grass that can be used to make flooring, cabinets, and furniture. It is renewable and biodegradable.
  • Recycled plastic – Plastic lumber and other building products made from recycled plastic like milk jugs and detergent bottles. It diverts plastic waste from landfills.
  • Straw bales – Bales of straw stacked and embedded in adobe to make super insulated walls for homes and other buildings.
  • Hempcrete – A concrete-like material made by mixing hemp hurds with lime and water. It is lightweight, breathable, and absorptive.
  • Rammed earth – Compacting a mixture of dirt, gravel, and clay into forms to make walls. An ancient building method that creates natural insulating walls.
  • Cork – Harvested from the bark of cork oak trees and used to make floor and wall tiles. It has good acoustic and thermal properties.
  • Mycelium – The root structure of mushrooms that can be used to make biodegradable insulation boards and eco-friendly packaging.

Why use alternative building materials?

There are several benefits to using alternative building materials:

  • Sustainability – Many are made from renewable or recycled resources, reducing strain on forests and mines. They have a lower carbon footprint compared to concrete and steel.

  • Energy efficiency – Alternative building materials like straw bale and hempcrete are often better insulators, reducing energy needs for heating and cooling.

  • Healthier indoor air – Many alternative materials absorb humidity, produce less VOCs, and create good airflow. This improves indoor air quality.

  • Lower cost – In some cases, alternative materials can be less expensive than conventional options. Labor costs may also be reduced with simplicity of construction.

  • Uniqueness – Alternative materials provide opportunity to create one-of-a-kind, natural aesthetics compared to mass produced conventional materials.

What is greenwashing in building materials?

Greenwashing is when companies make misleading or false claims about the eco-friendliness or sustainability of their products to capitalize on consumer demand for greener options. It is important to watch for greenwashing when choosing alternative building materials.

Signs of potential greenwashing:

  • Vague claims like “eco-friendly” without specifics on certifications or details on sustainability attributes

  • Images of nature and leaf logos that imply green benefits without evidence

  • Claims that a product is “natural” even though it contains petrochemicals or toxins

  • Lack of third party certifications like FSC, Greenguard, or Cradle to Cradle

  • Claims about recycled content without specifics on percentage of recycled materials

Tips for avoiding greenwashing:

  • Research companies – Look beyond claims on websites and packaging. Review their practices and transparency.

  • Verify certifications – Look for specific logos and certification numbers from reputable third parties.

  • Check for specifics – Require details on recycled content percentage, emissions levels, and sustainable sourcing.

  • Question vagueness – Be wary of generic terms like “natural” or “green” without supporting details.

  • Consider lifecycle impacts – Understand all inputs and pollution involved in material production, not just end product.

Top alternatives to consider by use:


  • Bamboo – Natural grass alternative to hardwood with good durability. Confirm it is sustainably harvested.

  • Cork – Naturally water and mold resistant, great acoustic properties. Look for FSC certification.

  • Recycled rubber – Typically made from old tires. Ask about recycled content percentage.

  • Linoleum – Made from natural materials like linseed oil on cork back. Avoid “faux” PVC linoleum.


  • Cellulose – Made from recycled cardboard/paper. Ensure it has decent R-value for climate.

  • Hempcrete – Lightweight, breathable, and absorptive. Use proper mix ratio for strength.

  • Mineral wool – Made from natural stone or recycled slag. Watch for added formaldehyde.

  • Straw bale – Provides excellent insulation and acoustic damping. Use fire resistant coating.

Structural materials

  • Bamboo – Strong, renewable alternative to lumber. Choose sustainably harvested sources.

  • Recycled plastic lumber – Stable in wet conditions and won’t rot or splinter. Verify high recycled content.

  • Hempcrete – Load bearing material that absorbs humidity. Use only for small low-rise buildings.

  • Rammed earth – Durable in seismic zones, regulates temperature. Add stabilizer to prevent erosion.

Key takeaways

  • Research companies thoroughly and verify any eco-claims with certifications.

  • Understand lifecycle impacts – not just end product characteristics.

  • Choose materials with low embodied energy, high recycled content, and natural ingredients when possible.

  • Talk to suppliers and ask lots of specific questions to avoid vague greenwashing claims.

  • Use alternative building materials thoughtfully based on your climate and building needs.

  • Focus on durability and low maintenance to minimize waste and energy use during building lifetime.