How to Shop Smarter for Eco-Friendly Products
Not all eco-friendly products are created equal. Some seemingly green options aren’t actually worth the extra money.
Unless you have your own compost pile, or live in a place where there is municipal composting, products marketed as biodegradable won’t actually biodegrade. In order to break down, a biodegradable item needs air, water, light, microbes, and enzymes. And those conditions aren’t readily available in overstuffed landfills. The better choice: reusable materials.
Natural or Organic Cosmetics
If you see the words, organic, natural, or eco-friendly on a bottle of cream, shampoo, or face powder, keep reading. Unless you notice a stamp from a reliable third party certifier to back up these green claims, it might not be as organic as you think. There might only be a single certified organic oil mixed in with 20 other decidedly non-organic ingredients. Look for items that are USDA certified organic, or that carry a Natural Products Association seal, or a BDIH stamp. You can also check out the safety of any cosmetic before purchasing on the Good Guide or The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.
Antibiotic and Hormone–Free Meat
It’s a great choice to avoid eating meat that contains either, but without third party certification, you never know what you’re really biting into. Look for the USDA organic seal, which bans the use of both and requires third party certification.
Bisphenol-A (BPA) is an industrial chemical involved in making certain plastics and has been associated with potential health hazards. However, BPA-free claims are also very difficult to verify and a recent study showed that most plastics, not just BPA, are harmful, especially when exposed to heat. If you are concerned about chemicals leaching from plastics into your food, the safest option is to switch to glass or lead-free ceramics for heating or dishwashing.
Sometimes there is too much of a good thing. Of course reusable bags are preferable to plastic or paper, but they do require a lot of energy to produce. According to a British government-sponsored life cycle assessment, a cotton bag must be used 171 times before it's environmentally friendlier than paper or plastic. So the next time you forget your reusable bags, don't guilt yourself into buying more, rather reuse the paper or plastic you take.
A large percentage of U.S. dry cleaners use perchlorethylene (aka perc), which the EPA says causes cancer in lab animals, and is a possible carcinogen. However, some of the chemicals most so-called organic cleaners use aren’t proven to be tremendously safer than perc. If you can find a CO2 or wet cleaner, that’s much better. Or wash your clothing yourself; it’s amazing how most items labeled dry clean only do just fine in a cold water cycle.
New Hybrid Car
Hybrids are tempting, but a new one might not be as environmentally friendly as keeping your current car. The impact of manufacturing and shipping a new car is so great that extending ownership is often a greener choice. This is especially true for large hybrids and hybrid SUVs that don't always add significant miles per gallon improvements over their conventional counterparts. When shopping for a new car, focus your search on the smallest car that will work for you that gets the most miles per gallon. And don’t rule out previously owned options, especially a used hybrid, which is the best of both worlds.
Organic cotton is an excellent green choice. The EPA considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton crops to be possible, likely, probable, or known carcinogens. Unfortunately, too many items, including sheets and towels, are labeled organic or eco-friendly with no certification to back it up. Look for the USDA organic seal or Global Organic Textile (GOTS) certification.