It's Easier To Be Green

Organic bell peppers are offered at the stand of Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent, N.Y., at the Union Square Greenmarket, New York City, Aug. 16, 2006. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
AP Photo/Richard Drew
Looking to green up your life?

You could commute in a hybrid, sip fair trade coffee, swaddle your tyke in organic cotton, spend vacations saving rain forests, bank your retirement on socially responsible investments, even power your home from a low-pollution utility.

But while all that green may leave you feeling good, does it really leave the world a better place? Or just thin your wallet?

The answer isn't always clear, which isn't much help for the millions of Americans navigating the increasingly politicized world of eco-consumerism, where everyday decisions, from which eggs go in your omelet to where you get your mortgage, take on new and confusing dimensions.

Part of the problem is it isn't just the environment that's at stake. Green products and services, including organic foods and fashion, are among the fastest growing retail categories, putting tens of billions of dollars up for grabs.

Hoping for a cut, some companies engage in so-called "green-washing," in which products marketed as eco-friendly don't live up to the hype, says Kristi Wiedemann, a researcher with Consumers Union, a nonprofit that evaluates products and services.

Combined with a lack of standards for some green-inspired labeling, including "environmentally friendly" and "natural," those empty promises make it challenging for consumers to know which products make a difference.

"The market is bombarded with these claims and consumers really have no way of knowing," says Wiedemann.

Which isn't to say buying legitimately green products can't make a difference. Though buying a set of organic bedding or a few compact fluorescent bulbs may seem insignificant, many environmentalists argue the collective power of individual purchases matters greatly.

Monique Tilford, acting executive director of Center for a New American Dream, a group that encourages environmentally sound consumption, points to the phenomenal growth of the natural products industry as proof.

Just 30 years ago natural products aspired to the fringe of retail. Today they are a marketing juggernaut that mainstream companies are racing to become a part of. And Tilford says it's all because a few people spent a few dollars.

"The more of us who individually make these choices makes it possible and culturally accessible for millions of others to make the same choices," she says. "And in the process, we can transform our society."

Yet even that isn't clear cut. Consumer demand recently prompted Wal-Mart to begin selling organic foods, a move that should improve access, prod farmers to devote more acreage to organic crops and lower prices.

Many in the organic community nevertheless feel conflicted, hesitant to support a massive corporation with a reputation for driving down prices paid to producers and using a distribution system unlikely to favor small, local farmers.

Going green also can breed complacency. As people adopt energy-saving technologies, they often feel entitled to use them more.

"Automobiles are certainly better in terms of air pollution than they were 20 years ago, but it's kind of a wash since we drive more," says Michael Maniates, a professor of political and environmental sciences at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

The flaw in the eco-consumer movement is the assumption that uncoordinated individual spending can effect meaningful change, he says. Historically, purchasing power is strongest when it is focused and follows a strategy. For example, the boycotts of tuna during the 1980s prompted industry-wide changes to protect dolphins.

Of course, altruism isn't the only reason to go green. Many people eat organic foods because they believe they are healthier. And while buying a hybrid car may not end the nation's reliance on foreign oil, it could save you a few bucks in gas.

But if you are trying to save the world, here are a few tips to make sure your eco-spending matters:

  • Shop local. The environmental benefit of organic grapes is offset by the energy consumed when they are shipped from afar.

  • Use trusted brands and products that are certified green (such as "organic," a term which is government regulated).

  • Coordinate with others to get the most impact from your spending.

  • Use green products, but don't use them as an excuse to indulge. Consume less overall.