How To Shop Green

Tons of "green" products flood the market, but which ones are truly green?

Aug. 8, 2007 Special to — -- Considering "going green"? You're probably not the only one.

Enter almost any grocery store and you're bound to find so-called green cleaning products next to traditional ones. Take Tide Cold Water detergent. Procter & Gamble claims it deep cleans clothes in cold water, cutting down on your energy use, not to mention your energy bill. Car buyers have plenty of environmentally friendly models from which to choose, and energy-efficient appliances get prominent placement on showroom floors.

Even retailers are getting in on the act. Sweden-based fashion emporium H&M introduced a green line in spring 2007, offering frocks and tops made with organic cotton. And Nike recently announced plans to make its footwear sustainable, vowing to adopt environmentally friendly production methods where possible.

But while an ever-growing range of "green" consumer products are finding their way into our homes, there is very little in the way of industry standard. One manufacturer's green product may have been produced in an entirely different manner than another's. As a result, experts say it's good to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism when choosing environmentally friendly products, and to rely on a select group of organizations monitoring the practices of certain industries.

Do Your Homework

Dig a bit and you'll likely come across the word "greenwashing." This, according to Julia Cosgrove, deputy editor of ReadyMade, a San Francisco-based magazine that focuses on do-it-yourself, sustainable projects, entails marketing a product as environmentally conscious without enough evidence that it really is.

"Much of what we're seeing now is just spin," she says. "When you look further, many of these companies are still making a big environmental footprint."

Translation: Even if a retailer offers clothes made with organic cotton, chances are they are being shipped via huge, gas-sucking airplanes.

Another example is vinyl. It is used in a great deal of vegan shoes, but the production of the material can create dioxin, a known carcinogen.

Clothing company Edun has experienced a case of greenwashing. Although some of its products are made of organic cotton, the company's main objective is to produce ethical (fairly traded, socially responsible) -- not green -- clothing. Although both concepts are positive, they certainly don't mean the same thing. Edun is an ethical clothing company, and although they take measures to protect the environment, they should not be categorized as green.

How to tell one from the other? Look to several watchdog organizations for a real education.

Digging Deeper

Netherlands-based Made-By tracks a garment's environmental footprint from the first thread on, and the International Forest Stewardship Alliance certifies wood-made products by ensuring that manufacturers collecting lumber are making the best use of forest resources, reducing damage and waste, and avoiding overconsumption and overharvesting. You can find a complete listing of their findings on

The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) labeling system, Design For The Environment (DfE), ensures that the chemicals in DfE-certified products -- like Earth Choice's new range of household cleaners -- are environmentally preferable, which means such products are created with lower volatile organic compounds. High levels of these materials can damage soil and groundwater, and emit greenhouse gasses, contributing to global warming.

Kitchen appliances now possess one of the most widely recognized labels, EnergyStar, another EPA-run unit. These labels ensure an appliance meets energy-efficient guidelines set by the EPA and the Department of Energy. Criteria for each appliance differs and can be found on under the products tab.

"It's a fairly well-known metric that will reduce your energy use and save you money," says Ron Jones, founder of Greenbuilder, a development, media and consulting firm dedicated to sustainable development and green building, of EnergyStar. Often, buying a new, energy-saving air conditioner will save you in the end since older models not only cost more to run but often don't work as well.

Whether you're buying one piece of green clothing or remodeling your entire home with energy-efficient appliances, Jones says it's important to note how your everyday activities affect the environment.

"If you start to look at a person in terms of their individual footprint, which includes their transportation habits, eating habits, clothing and housing, it starts to get very complex," he says. "Think through everything. Determine how it will affect your everyday living conditions, and your quality of life going forward."