What's the smartest step you can take to help reduce pollution and live in a more sustainable way? It might simply be to take a look at the environmental impact of the things you buy. Choosing eco-friendly products is not just a fad, nor has the economic downturn slowed the trend. A 2009 study by nonprofit research group Green Seal and EnviroMedia Social Marketing found that about four out of five people said they bought green products despite the recession.
Eco-friendly consumerism may involve making some complicated decisions. For example, a new refrigerator may be more energy efficient than the one you own now, but a good deal of energy goes into manufacturing any appliance to begin with. Is it more eco-friendly to buy the new one or stick with the old if it still works? Likewise, buying locally grown food cuts the energy used for transportation, but growing them in a greenhouse might use just as much energy.
To complicate matters further, shoppers have to take much of the information provided about products with a grain of salt. Manufacturers and retailers sometimes offer unproven, vague, irrelevant or outright false claims. This technique, known as "greenwashing," is meant to make consumers think products are green when they're not. For example, claims like "chemical free" and "nontoxic" are often meaningless. Cigarettes might be labeled "natural," but they're still bad for you.
The best way to determine whether a product is eco-friendly is to rely on third-party certification. Look for products with labels from reliable organizations that evaluate the environmental impact of each item. For example, Green Seal is a nonprofit organization that conducts a rigorous, scientific analysis of the overall impact of products. Another authoritative certifier is Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), which looks at things like recycled content, organic ingredients and sustainable forestry. Products certified Energy Star by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have to meet minimum energy-saving criteria. Ecologo is a certification program run by the Canadian government and recognized worldwide. A good place to sort out all the different labels is Consumer Reports' GreenerChoices Web site.
1. Can I get along without it? There's an environmental cost to every product. Reusing current items is often the most eco-friendly strategy.
2. Can I make it myself? Many cleaning products, for example, can be made at home from common ingredients like baking soda and vinegar.
3. Can I buy it used? Buying second-hand clothing, cars or computers avoids the eco-costs of manufacturing new ones. Check yard sales or classified advertisements on Internet sites like Craigslist. The Freecycle Network, a Web site connecting people by region, facilitates passing on used items for free.
On the next page, we'll find out what actually makes a product eco-friendly.
Figuring Out Eco-friendly Products
Drinking water instead of a sugary soft drink is good for your health, but bottled water is definitely bad for the planet's health. According to nonprofit research group the Pacific Institute, producing the plastic bottles for Americans' annual consumption requires the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil and creates more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide. Going with a reusable bottle and filtered tap water instead may be the more eco-friendly route.
Deciding whether a product is eco-friendly isn't always easy. You need to consider the entire life cycle of the item and look at the impact of each phase. This includes thinking about the following aspects:
- Materials: What is it made of? Does it include recycled material? What about toxic substances?
- Energy content: How much energy went into making it?
- Delivery: How much energy was used to get it to you?
- Efficiency: How much energy does it use when operating?
- Durability: Will it wear out quickly and have to be replaced?
- Disposal: Will it create pollution when discarded? Can the materials be recycled?
- Packaging: Does it include excess packaging that has to be thrown away?
Some products are eco-friendly from one perspective but not from another. For example, they may be made recycled materials but include lots of unnecessary packaging or use a large amount of energy.
Some consumers look at other criteria. You may want to be sure that no animals were used to test the product. Products labeled as "fair trade" refers to those where the producers and workers are not exploited by middlemen. "Vegan" products contain no materials derived from animals. You might look for tuna that has been caught without harming dolphins or "shade grown" coffee that helps maintain forest habitats.
Whatever criteria are important to you, there are some general, simple rules to follow when shopping. Buy large sizes to minimize packaging. For example, a large box of corn flakes is definitely more eco-friendly than the ones that come packaged as individual servings. The packaging should be recyclable, and you should choose reusable products like rechargeable batteries or cloth napkins. Opt for durable, long-lasting products to avoid the waste of "disposable" items. Steer clear of throwaway cameras, pens, razors and similar items.
When you go to the store, always bring a reusable shopping bag (or several) with you. A simple net or cloth bag eliminates the need for paper or plastic bags, saving energy and resources.
On the next page, we'll learn about where you can look for eco-friendly products.
Sustainable energy may be one of the most eco-friendly purchases you can make. It's now possible to receive your electricity from companies that generate it from renewable sources like solar or wind. To find out more, contact your local utility or the U.S. Department of Energy's Green Power Network.
Eco-friendly Product Suppliers
The first place to look for eco-friendly products is at the same stores where you do your ordinary shopping. Many major retail chains have begun to supply products that minimize environmental damage. For example, Home Depot identifies and labels products that are environmentally friendly, everything from all-natural insect repellents to front-load washing machines. The company's Web site includes a section called "Eco Options" that can direct you to the most eco-friendly alternatives. Lowe's, which also offers organic and eco-friendly products, offers recycling programs for batteries and home appliances.
Target is another store that has promoted green shopping. The retailer offers a range of eco-friendly products, from reusable bags to natural beauty products. The company has also partnered with NextWorth, a trade-in program, to encourage the recycling of electronic items like cell phones and iPods. Best Buy also offers an electronics recycling program.
When it comes to groceries, many supermarket chains now offer organic produce and other green products. They might also sell foods in bulk to cut down on packaging.
While green products are only a part of the offerings of major retailers, you can probably find local businesses that are committed solely to green shopping. For example, the Sapona Green Building Center in Wilmington, N.C., focuses exclusively on eco-friendly products. Many communities have organized farmers' markets where you can buy local products in season. Consignment and thrift shops recycle items directly by reselling them.
The Internet is also a great place to search for eco-friendly products. And in many cases, buying online is a better way to shop, anyway. Having items delivered or mailed to your home is often more energy efficient than driving to a store to purchase it. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that online shopping uses 35 percent less energy and carbon emissions compared to making a purchase at a brick-and-mortar store.
There are many Web sites that screen and sell eco-friendly products. BuyGreen.com sets standards for every product based on the item's entire life cycle and gives it a rating. Ecomall.com and Greenshopper.com are similar central sites where you can shop among many companies that offer eco-friendly products. National Green Pages is a directory of about 3,000 companies that have made commitments to sustainable and socially just operations. Keep in mind, though, that you still might need to do some research to find out just how green individual products are.
A quick Internet search can also provide you with links to manufacturers of all types of eco-friendly products. For example, you can check out the environmentally friendly home products created by Seventh Generation and find out where to buy them from a local source. The Green Products Alliance provides links to member retailers and manufacturers who sell eco-friendly skin care products. Many specialty sellers can be found on the Web with a simple search. They offer items like natural pet products, organic cotton and green office supplies.
Purchasing an eco-friendly product may not seem like a big deal, but if everyone takes a few small steps, it can add up to a giant leap toward keeping the planet healthy.