Shopping for a darker shade of green
by Pamela Portwood
When we're standing in the grocery aisle debating which brand of bread to buy, we can flip the package over and read the nutrition label. Thanks to the Food and Drug Administration, we can find out the calorie count, saturated fat level and more on packaged foods.
Yet when it comes to shopping for furniture, flooring and other home products, there is no universal standard. Companies everywhere are touting their products as "green," "environmentally friendly," "natural," "organic" and "eco" everything. Even green certifications can be misleading. So what's a consumer who is concerned about the environment and their family's health to do?
There is no easy answer for how to avoid greenwashing, which makes a product seem greener than it is. To find the best, greenest product to meet your needs, you must ask many questions. Ask yourself the first questions: What do I need? Can I have my current model repaired, or will a used piece work?
If you want to purchase a new product, some of the overarching issues to consider are: the product's qualities and performance; its impact on your health and the environment; its life cycle; and the manufacturer's environmental policies.
In terms of the product itself, choose a durable product that won't have to be replaced soon. Investigate the product's component parts. Does it include recycled content? Does it use nonrenewable, natural resources?
The manufacturer's website is a good place to begin. You also can ask for the product's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). Although it's technical, the MSDS includes a list of the product's toxic components.
To make sense of such technical information, consult the Environmental Protection Agency's website (www.epa.gov/iaq). The EPA is a good source for tackling indoor air quality issues to promote a healthy home and environment.
Consulting third-party certifications is an excellent way to be assured about a product's green characteristics. Be careful though because most certifications cover specific areas. For example, a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification on a sofa tells you that the wood comes from forests that are sustainably managed, but it tells you nothing about whether its glues or finishes will emit hazardous volatile organic components (VOCs).
Check with ecolabelling.com to find out what certifications are available in a particular product area and how they work.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) considers a product's complete life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials through the manufacture, distribution, use and disposal of the product as well as the transportation steps involved. Since the majority of certification systems do not include LCAs, remember that a product's manufacturing and transportation processes impact the environment and that using nonrenewable resources depletes the earth.
For example, buying furniture made of repurposed teak reduces deforestation, but shipping the teak from Asia to the United States uses a lot of fuel and generates more greenhouse gases than a locally produced product would.
Also, look online for the manufacturer's environmental policies. Are they committed to recycling; conserving energy and water; and using renewable energy? Are they working to make their products greener? The depth of the manufacturer's environmental policy is an indication of how green their products are.
These are a few of the questions to pursue. There are always trade-offs in green characteristics because there are no perfectly green products. So the question becomes: What "shade of green" - from pastel to forest green - is the product overall?
Ultimately, if a product doesn't meet your needs and perform well, it doesn't matter how greeen it is. Don't buy it.
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Article is reprinted courtesy of The New Southwest (formerly Tucson Green Times).