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How to Avoid "Greenwashing"
April 7, 2011

Consumers are looking more than ever for eco-friendly alternatives in the marketplace. Learn to avoid products packaged as "green" in name only and seek out products truly good for you and the environment. Below are a few tips to understand today's green buzzwords:

  1. Made from sustainably harvested wood
    This label is often found on wood products such as printing paper, furniture, and lumber. Roughly 32 million acres of forestland are lost to logging and agriculture every year, according to the Rainforest Alliance. Much of the logging is illegal, polluting waterways and often harming local people who are not fairly compensated for the land or their work logging it. A "sustainably harvested" label means the wood was grown and harvested in a way considerate of the ecosystem and the human communities involved. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Rainforest Alliance have forest certification programs. Look for a certification label (such as the FSC label) to be sure you are purchasing a sustainable product.
  2. More energy efficient
    The energy-efficient label can be placed on something as small as a compact flourescent lightbulb (CFL) or as large as a heating and cooling system. Unless quantified, it can be a vague claim. In the U.S., the Energy Star label can be found on electronics, appliances, and even buildings that are 20-30% more efficient than average systems to ensure that a homeowner can reach a significant level of savings.
  3. Uses less plastic
    Some disposable plastic water bottles promote the use of less plaster. What this typically means is that the bottle was redesigned to be smaller in order to use thinner plastic. Yet, compared with reusable plastic or stainless steel bottles, they are still environmentally detrimental. Less packaging is an improvement, but finding an alternative without any waste is even better. Less packaging does not always equate to sustainable.
  4. Made naturally
    The Natural Products Association (NPA) label requires that ingredients come from a renewable resource and exclude the use of petroleum compounds. Its standards do allow for a few synthetic chemicals that are not considered harmful to human health. Unfortunately, many products marked "natural" are not certified and use the word arbitrarily. Also note that "natural" does not mean organic," defined as a product that has only ingredients produced without synthetic chemicals such as pesticides. Organic products are natural, natural products are not necessarily organic.
  5. Biodegradable or compostable
    Biodegradable" or "compostable" materials break down into elements found in nature when they are exposed to air, moisture, bacteria or other organisms. A biodegradable plastic bag will break down and return to the ecosystem harmlessly. A conventional plastic bag can take hundreds of year to break down into smaller pieces and can release toxins in the process as it is made with oil-based products. Even still, such materials can take decades to break down in landfills due to the restriction of air and moisture. It is actually up to the consumer to compost these products in order for them to be eco-friendly.

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