It’s Not Easy Being (Truly) Green

Green is in, with eco-enthusiasts eagerly snapping up environmentally friendly products from bamboo floors to locally grown organic produce. Green with envy at the apparent ease with which those products sell, corporate America now makes eco-friendly claims right and left as it strives to cash in on this profitable new trend… making it increasingly difficult for even savvy consumers to sort through what’s marketing hype and what constitutes a bona fide commitment to the environment.

For expert advice on how to find truly environmentally friendly products made by eco-friendly companies, I turned to Linda Chipperfield, vice president of marketing and outreach for Green Seal (www.greenseal.org), the largest independent, eco-labeling organization in the US. “These days it seems like everything is ‘going green,’ ” she says, “when in reality many products and services haven’t changed. Only the marketing initiatives have.”

BEWARE OF “GREENWASHING” THE TRUTH

Fake green marketing techniques are known as “greenwashing,” and there’s a lot of it out there. Among the many buzz-terms consumers should beware — green, environmentally friendly, environmentally safe and 100% natural. Legally, companies can make these claims without answering to any standards other than their own. These terms are not required to be verified or validated by either the government or independent organizations, and therefore are not guarantees of anything, warns Chipperfield. For example, being 100% natural doesn’t prove that a product is safe, since there are many naturally occurring substances that are potentially harmful (eg, petroleum).

Additionally, there are lots of legitimate and true statements manufacturers can display on their labels that turn out to be meaningless. For example, some aerosol cans say “CFC-Free.” While this claim is technically correct and certainly good for the environment, the fact is that CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons, greenhouse gases that damage the ozone layer) were banned from aerosol cans years ago. They are now illegal.

THE ECO-LABELING OF AMERICA

The good news is that there are some eco-friendly labels that you can believe in. In particular, Green Seal examines a product’s entire life cycle — from the raw materials used to produce it, to the impact of the manufacturing process, to whether the used product ends up in a recycling bin or a landfill.

According to Chipperfield, the top US organizations that offer environmental recommendations free of conflicts of interest include…

  • Green Seal (www.greenseal.org). A 19-year-old nonprofit organization, Green Seal awards seals of approval for products and services from over 40 product categories such as cleaners, paint and paper products, and services such as cleaning, fleet maintenance services and even hotels.
  • Energy Star (www.energystar.gov). One of the most well known certifications, this seal can be seen on a wide range of electrical appliances from light bulbs to refrigerators, which meet government energy efficient guidelines.
  • Forest Stewardship Council (www.fscus.org). The global leader in the certification of forests. Their logo ensures wood commodities such as lumber and paper products come from certified forests.
  • Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (www.fairtrade.net). The “International Fair Trade Certification Mark” assures consumers that these worldwide products come from traders and producers that contribute to social, environmental and economic development.
  • Marine Stewardship Council (www.msc.org). An independent non-profit organization that promotes responsible fishing practices. Look for their logo on seafood product packaging.
  • USDA (www.ams.usda.gov/nop/consumers/
    consumerhome.html
    ). The Organic Foods Production Act and the National Organic Program (NOP) are intended to assure consumers that the organic agricultural products they purchase are produced, processed and certified to consistent national organic standards.

Responsible consumers should demand proof that a product is actually environmentally preferable, Chipperfield advises. Read labels carefully, look for the logos of the organizations listed above and look beyond the hype. The phone number of the company is usually printed on the label. Requesting the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) is a good way to find out about chemicals… so is going to the Web site. Do whatever it takes to learn what potential toxins a product contains, and whether it can be safely disposed of or (preferably) recycled. And, if an item is labeled as green but comes in wasteful packaging loaded with plastic and foam packaging peanuts, it isn’t green… and it’s not a great choice.