Consider the various “green triumph” projects that are the subject of much analysis here at the Unbroken Window. Suppose folks accede to the simple findings that these projects rarely, if ever, pay for themselves on direct environmental or economic grounds.
But suppose you did a research paper that found that for certain institutions, investing in green elephants actually did provide an advertising benefit. It made potential students more aware of your school. Fine. No problem there.
But what happens when everyone invests in green elephants. Are all potential students made more aware of all potential schools? And when it comes to college admissions and quality, it is relative awareness and propensities to enroll that matter, particularly when schools are bumped up against capacity constraints (if not, then overall awareness increases will lead to overall higher enrollments, which are a “good” thing only if the marginal student is profitable to enroll and/or the societal benefits to that enrollment are large).
In other words, if you wish to argue that investing in a LEED building “pays for itself” in advertising, then you must also admit that arms races are socially and economically harmless. I don’t think that’s what green advocates mean when they make such claims.