How to Buy a Green Product

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"I’ve heard some people say that bamboo clothing is good for the environment, but others say that it isn’t because of the chemicals used to produce it? Who is right?”

“I’ve heard a lot about 'greenwashing' lately. How do I know when I can trust a label that says a product is better for the environment?”

Although many consumers have now decided that they want to go green, they are finding that it can be complicated. Intelligent green consumption takes more than good will alone. It also requires reliable information and resources. Here are a few tips.

Don’t expect the government to solve this problem any time soon. There are important government resources that can help, but they are limited. The FTC regulates environmental advertising and does have the power to take action against companies that promote their products in an unfair or deceptive manner. The Commission requires that advertisers make specific and clear claims about what makes their products “eco-friendly,” and companies must be able to substantiate such claims through reliable evidence. However, the reality is that the FTC has not, and perhaps cannot, keep pace with sophisticated forms of greenwashing, which can leave the consumer with the misleading impression that one particular product is better for the environment than competing products. Although the green guides are undergoing revision in 2008, it is likely that FTC enforcement will continue to be limited to only a small percentage of the most egregious forms of greenwashing. Certification can help.

There are a growing number of reliable certification programs that can help you to identify green businesses and products that embrace leading standards for creating a sustainable environment. Certification programs that promote the highest standards use criteria for “green” that are created by a wide range of stakeholders, including industry, government, and consumer groups. They are buffered from conflicts of interest, and do a life cycle assessment of the environmental impact of the products they certify, meaning that they measure the impact of the product from its inception and manufacture through its use to its disposal. Be aware that there are many good small green merchants who cannot reasonably afford the steep price of top flight life cycle assessment certification.

Some reputable certifications to look for include EcoLogo, Green Seal, MBDC cradle to cradel, SMART certification by MTS, LEED, Green Guard, USDA organic, Energy Star, Transfair USA, Green-e, FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), EPEAT, Healthy Child Healthy World. Although it does not certify products, Co-op Americaprovides a screening process to assure that member businesses listed in its directory meet criteria for environmental and social responsibility in sourcing, manufacturing, and marketing products. Similarly, although it does not certify products, the Fair Trade Federation screens member businesses according to whether they adhere to fair trade principles.

Consumers do require additional information in order to understand the meaning and limitations of particular certification programs.

Consult additional sources of information.

Like it or not, this means that intelligent green consumption will require investing a little time in self-education. There are a growing number of innovative informational resources available to consumers to help them make good choices. Consumer Reports now provides information about the environmental impact of specific products and the meaning and reliability of particular eco-friendly labels. Co-op America’s Responsible Shopper provides information about the environmental track record of particular companies. GreenYour provides people with carefully researched tips as well as vetted products and services around anything that users seek to "green". The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep site identifies the types and level of toxicity of chemicals that cosmetic companies use in their products. The Enviromedia Greenwashing Index raises awareness of greenwashing techniques by allowing consumers to post examples of greenwashing ads and comment on them. Think 2100 lists eco-friendly products from a wide range of merchants and encourages consumers to use the review function for these listings to post questions to the merchants about their eco-friendly claims. A number of sites, such as Greenpeace, Treehugger, and Grist provide information for the green consumer through blogs, research, and news information.

Listing of Green Product and Living Guides

GreenYour Low Impact Living Treehugger

Listing of Green Product Shopping Places

Treehugger Evo Greenzer BuyitGreen Lewis Lumber FSC Certified Think 2100 OnlyGreen

This article was originally entitled How to Buy Green Products and is reprinted here with permission of the author. 

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