Can changing our buying habits really change the world? Maybe, if we consume less, or at least make considered choices that can help spur...

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Here’s some help getting through the eco-maze

Can changing our buying habits really change the world? Maybe, if we consume less, or at least make considered choices that can help spur companies to take better care of the planet.

While consumer awareness has clearly increased demand for more products that are locally produced, renewable, reusable, less polluting or not heavily packaged, trying to buy green sometimes requires us to dig deeper — either into our pocketbooks or to do more research.

Third-party verifications or certifications can be useful in trying to find your way through the eco-maze. But there’s also a certain amount of trust involved if you’re trying to totally avoid greenwashing — ad or label claims of environmentally sound products and practices that are vague, misleading or just don’t go far enough. Making the best choices, environmentally speaking, is a complicated matter that sometimes comes down to personal preference.

Consider the enthusiasm for locally grown food, which in some quarters has a higher status than organic. Buying local produce supports small growers and puts fresher food on the table, but recent studies have shown that items picked up from the nearby farmers’ market may not have a lower carbon footprint than shipped produce. What’s more important to you?

Or take cotton, as another example of complexity. Conventional cotton crops use a lot of pesticides and water, so organic cotton is a more environmentally sound alternative. But nearly all fabrics are bleached or dyed; even natural dyes are often fixed so they don’t fade. Every step in processing fabric affects the environment in some way.

Clothing makers and other businesses can bend over backward to clean up their environmental act and make the best social and moral decisions, yet still face pragmatic challenges. And to what lengths do they go without ending up with products that only the wealthy can afford? It’s an evolving situation.

— Freelance writer Mary Rothschild is a former Seattle Times editor now based in Port Townsend.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

You could drown in the deluge of books and Web sites flooding the market with suggestions on how to “shop green.” Here are a few good free sites that can get you started if you want to learn more.

Note that many organizations have struggled with how to “rate the greenness” of products, and therefore tend to offer guidelines while leaving it to consumers to do the checking. Some that do list products often include a caveat that they can’t check out claims 100 percent. Consumer Reports is noteworthy in that it actually tests products that it rates.

BUYING GUIDELINES

Grist.org: A Seattle-based national environmental advocacy Web site offers helpful guidelines for “how to navigate the wild world of products with eco-claims” including red flags that signal greenwashing. (There’s a link to its $15 comprehensive green guide, too.)

Treehugger.com: This respected environmental Web site includes both shopping guidelines and some product recommendations (see: “how to green your furniture/your sex life/your furniture, your lighting/ your wardrobe,” etc.). Product links at the bottom of detailed examinations with a note that the site itself doesn’t rate them.

National Geographic’s “The Green Guide

Reputable site with guidelines rather than specific product ratings.

PRODUCT RECOMMENDATIONS:

Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices.org

Consumer Reports offers lots of solid, unbiased buying info about appliances, cars, electronics, food and home and garden. The site’s a bit confusing to navigate, and you have to subscribe for details on their testing and rating of products. (Also, the editors’ “The Shop Smart Guide to Green” issue of October/November 2007 is worth its $6 price for those in the market for furniture, flooring, lighting, paint, and cleaning supplies. It offers money-saving tips and is frank about tradeoffs; example: linoleum, bamboo and cork flooring all had high environmental ratings but in testing, bamboo and cork didn’t always wear or keep their colors well while linoleum was both sunlight-and dent-resistant and more moderately priced).

biggreenpurse.com

This site, aimed at women consumers, has buying guidelines but also links to product Web sites and points to products, claiming: “We’ve strolled the shopping aisles and browsed the search engines so you don’t have to. We’ve found products that are really green (not just ‘green washed’) at prices you can afford. Where possible, we’ve pinpointed goods that are not only green but ‘fair trade.'” A new book by the same name is available, too, at $18.

www.evo.com

A newer site solely focused on shopping, rather than an environmentalist site with a shopping component. Gives hands-on evaluations of the many products listed and rates how many green criteria each product meets (the more green leaves, the “greener”); products must have at least one green attribute. You click to directly purchase items.

PC Magazine, go.pcmag.com/greentech

PC Magazine recently began testing personal computers, measuring against a set of proprietary benchmark tests to measure a computer’s “conscience.” The best earn the PC Magazine Labs’ Green Approved seal. Measured are energy efficiency, recyclability, certifications and other factors. Also, “We’ll take note of compliance with industry standards such as Energy Star 4.0, EPEAT (Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool), and Europe’s Reduction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive.”

Coming next, the magazine says: “We’ll devise new ways to evaluate the greenness of printers, monitors, cell phones, and more … “

COMPANY SITES:

It can be worth reading what a company itself has to say about its practices. Some companies, like Portland-based NAU, try to educate consumers and help them understand the challenges and trade-offs manufacturers face today (www.nau.com) in order to live up to environmental and social goals.

Patagonia (www.patagonia.com) is known for its Footprint Chronicles, an interactive mini-site that allows you to track the impact of five Patagonia products from design through delivery.