Earth Day and My Budget Conflict

Last Updated Apr 22, 2009 4:54 PM EDT

On Earth Day I'm reminded of the conflict I feel every time I walk into a supermarket. I want to do my part for the environment and buy green products and organic food, but I'm also trying to watch my pennies during the recession.

Here's the financial problem in a nutshell: "Environmentally friendly" versions of goods like cleaning products, toilet tissue, and light bulbs can cost twice as much as their conventional counterparts. Organic food is typically 50 percent to 100 percent more than non-organics.

What's worse is that if I do shell out the extra money -- which I do on many items -- it turns out that sometimes I'm throwing my hard earned dollars away. I just read that a recent study by marketing firm Terra Choice Environmental Marketing discovered that an astounding 98 percent of so called green products found on store shelves are guilty of greenwashing. (Greenwashing means the product is misleading consumers regarding the maker's environmental practices or the item's environmental benefits.)

Some of the worst sins committed by companies include not backing up their claims (some toilet tissue products claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing any supporting details), making vague marketing claims ("all-natural" is basically a useless description), and making irrelevant statements (saying something is CFC-free is silly considering CFCs are banned by law).

The solution? Get more skeptical. If you want to make sure you're getting your money's worth and doing what's best for the planet you need to read product labels very carefully and make sure they're legitimate. Here's a list of labels that you can trust.

On the food front, where I'm most likely to splurge, I tend to buy organic produce since I'm worried about harmful pesticides poisoning my daughter. (I know everyone isn't in agreement on this, but my maternal guilt doesn't allow me to take any chances.) But once again, I'm probably spending more than I need to. It turns out that some fruits and vegetables are more susceptible to pesticides than others.

According to the Environmental Working Group, I can safely buy items like broccoli, bananas, mangos, and asparagus without worrying about pesticides. But if I do want to avoid the poison, I should prioritize my shopping and focus on buying organic apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries. Here's a full list of the produce with the most and fewest pesticides. (A little disclosure: Environmentalists make the argument that buying all organic produce helps the farm workers and the environment. Probably a fair point, but I just can't afford to pay twice as much for all of my groceries on a weekly basis.)

My takeaway on Earth Day? Marketers are exploiting my desire to help the environment and eat healthier food. I'm going to be much more careful before I open my wallet to make sure green claims are legit.

In the Supermarket image by The ShutterBabe, CC 2.0.
  • Stacey Bradford

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