In an era rampant with claims of environmental purity, few designations have the clout and cachet of LEED certification by the Washington-based non-profit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).
Launched in March 2000, LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) remains a hard-to-get credential certifying that a building has met rigorous green standards for location, water efficiency, energy modeling, materials and indoor environmental quality. There is not one LEED certification, but several, varying by type of building (new or existing, school or retail store, for example) and level of compliance (certified, silver, gold or platinum). Moreover, LEED has gone through numerous iterations since its beginning, the latest being LEED for 2009, and is in the process of being updated to LEED for 2012.
Worldwide, more than 10,000 buildings across the architectural spectrum, from schools and supermarkets to the Empire State Building, have received a LEED designation. That number will continue to grow as localities increasingly require new buildings to be LEED certified. At present, 134 supermarkets have been LEED certified or registered with the program, according to the USGBC. Stop & Shop/Giant, Quincy, Mass., has joined the USGBC's “volume certification” program, which will certify multiple LEED stores based on a prototype store passing muster; Fresh & Easy is a pilot member of this program.
LEED draws on disparate existing standards to come up with an overarching protocol. “LEED looks at how to green a building comprehensively,” said Marc Mondor, principal, LEED faculty, evolveEA, Pittsburgh, during a presentation in September at the Food Marketing Institute's Energy & Store Development Conference in Atlanta. “Prior to LEED, you had Energy Star, but not a rating system that looked at energy, water, materials and indoor environmental quality.”
By offering a points-based framework for making green improvements, LEED provides a pathway for retailers and other commercial builders to reach environment goals. And retailers that have gotten LEED certification for one or more stores have not only garnered favorable publicity for contributing to the environmental well-being of their communities, but have also been able to reduce their operational costs.
For example, PCC Natural Markets, Seattle, a nine-store organic cooperative, saves on both energy and water costs at its two LEED stores. Beyond that, “the value of features that enhance the work environment for our employees and the shopping experience for our customers is immeasurable,” said Diana Crane, PCC's director of sustainability. And the recognition PCC has received for its LEED stores “has created added value to what many of our shoppers feel they receive for choosing to shop at any of our stores.”
Yet many retailers who have adopted green strategies and technologies have avoided LEED because of the additional costs involved in securing the certification. Complicating the picture is the emergence of a second certification option, Green Globes, which shares many standards with LEED but offers a more flexible and less expensive certification process.
FMI's “Food Industry Speaks 2011” study sheds some light on retailers' approach to LEED. About 19% of surveyed retailers have at least one store carrying the LEED certification; another 9.9% plan on building a LEED-certified store in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, 54.4% of retailers reported that they are pursuing green building initiatives without seeking LEED certification.
Cost is the main barrier cited by retailers in the FMI study, with almost half (47.7%) not wanting to pay the administrative and filing fees associated with LEED certification. A slightly lower percentage, 45.5%, didn't see any benefits of official certification, while others (36.4%) cited time considerations.
One executive from a Southeast food retailer, who asked not to be identified, said his chain looked into getting LEED certification and has even adopted some of its guidelines. But in the end costs stood in the way. “To get LEED certification, everything costs more money,” he said, adding, “We don't see the value in it. What does having it give you back, other than saying you've got a LEED Certified store?”
In particular, the executive cited the higher costs of building materials and equipment for LEED projects. Without pursuing LEED certification, the chain is nonetheless adopting systems that would earn it LEED points, such as self-dimming lights, glass doors in dairy and beverage cases, LED lights in freezer doors, among other measures.
Retailers who have pursued LEED report varying costs for the certification. The USGBC charges $3,150 for registration and certification of a building with less than 50,000 square feet, according to Nick Shaffer, USGBC's manager of LEED. This does not include meeting the commissioning requirement, which can run $10,000 or more, he added, or energy modeling. In addition, the premium for a LEED building's green add-ons ranges from 0% to 1%, he said.
Retailers sometimes incur significant cost increases for LEED by hiring contractors or consultants who don't understand the LEED process and need to be vetted carefully, said Shaffer. “The more you understand what LEED is asking for and the small changes you need to make, the less costly it will be.”
Whatever the costs, a number of food retailers, including regional chains like Giant Eagle and Price Chopper Supermarkets, have made LEED a fundamental part of their building programs. Their experiences speak to the benefits, as well as the costs, of seeking LEED certification.