Ida Cheinman, principal, Substance151
Ida Cheinman, principal, Substance151

The apartment industry’s environmental impact has come a long way in the past 20 years, largely due to the push for more sustainable building materials and practices that require less energy and produce cleaner air and healthier living.

But getting the message out about those accomplishments can still pose a challenge.

Ida Cheinman, principal of Substance151, a branding company based in Baltimore, has spent much of her career helping to market companies that are advancing sustainable values, and she knows the environmentally friendly and energy-efficient products that today’s consumers value. MFE spoke with Cheinman to learn how property managers, developers, and building owners can best, and authentically, communicate the green features of their properties.

What are some aspects of living in a green building that people respond to most?
The younger generations are much more purpose driven, and aspects of green building that make the world a better place resonate with them. In a larger sense, when you start talking about energy efficiency, there are two things that become very, very important: cost savings and comfort.

People are pretty educated that electricity prices are increasing and that energy-efficient appliances and a well-built building with great insulation are going to lower their bills if they’re responsible for utilities. And, then, everyone wants to be comfortable in their apartment, especially in summer and winter, and not worry about huge electric bills or wasting energy resources, at least for people who care about energy efficiency. Also, if you’re in an urban location, [there’s the] cool factor of being in a green building.

One interesting thing we’re finding in terms of green marketing across the board is that the younger generations have a totally different relationship with sustainability. It’s becoming less differentiating and more of a given. If 10 years ago being a green building was a huge competitive advantage, now not having those features is a huge disadvantage, because those newer generations won’t be jumping up and down because you offer recycling. To them, it’s like, “Yeah, doesn’t everybody?”

Where’s the fine line between greenwashing and marketing a truly green building?
In general, when I talk about it, I talk about five aspects: relevance, consistency, transparency, authenticity, and credibility. We just talked about relevance, that people should be interested and your message should be targeted to people’s interests. The first thing, though, is consistency. When your message is accurately and consistently represented in all communications, it also builds credibility.

If people hear you’re saying one thing here and another there, they’re starting to think you’re being untruthful, that you’re hiding something or overhyping something. It’s the same with transparency. When you talk about low-flow toilets and recycling, the more detail you provide, the more credible your message sounds. You can still talk about low-flow toilets, but talk about specific studies, research, and cost savings, such as how much water the toilets save, on average. Authenticity is critical, because if you’re positioning your building as green and, oops, you forgot to put those recycling bins there, there’s immediately a disconnect.

Are there certain words or concepts that are better to use when selling green living?
Everything is kind of a buzzword. In the past 15 or 20 years that we’ve been talking about it, it was “green”; then, “sustainability” became interchangeable with “green.” Yet, sustainability is really a three-legged stool—economic, social, and environmental—while green refers only to environmental benefits. A huge aspect of all of that is the social aspect—whether you’re restoring underserved communities by bringing better buildings and more people and traffic for retail and small businesses.

Whatever terms you use, just put it in plain English. Don’t try to outsmart yourself and your audience with big words and jargon without explaining things in plain terms. Say you have green features, and then explain what that really means. If you leave it at “green features,” it’s very greenwashy. Even if you call them green features, start saying, "These are the water-efficiency [or] waste-reducing programs we have in place," and back it up with that data or research you have on the benefits of those programs.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve seen when people market their green features?
The biggest one is the disconnect between what their website says and what their agents are saying. It’s just a lack of training and educating those people who are actually selling your features. Make sure that whatever you’re selling online, offline, in person, and everywhere [else] is very consistent.

Some of the things we see across the board with green marketing is that companies say, “We’re a really sustainable company,” and then you go to a meeting and they have, like, 40 packets of 60-slide PowerPoints printed one sided. If you’re positioning yourself as a green developer or a green building, then everything you do needs to be looked at via a green lens.