Organic cotton sheets, sustainable flooring, recycled glass countertops. The words hint at something lovely and healthy, but what do they mean exactly?
Much as the word "organic" was used loosely years ago, the word "green" and all its synonyms are appearing everywhere in commercials, advertisements and marketing lingo.
Its misuse has become so widespread, it has earned its own term — "greenwashing" — and the Federal Trade Commission is speeding up plans to regulate the marketers' tactics. The FTC's final report (known as the "Green Guides") may take more than a year to be completed. In the meantime, here are some guidelines.
• Do your homework. "A quick search on the Internet can usually turn up a few reputable editorial sources and most likely some readers' comments and ratings," says Graham Hill. His Web site, TreeHugger.com, features its own "Green Guides" section, which breaks down the top environmental attributes and concerns among major product categories.
• Energy at least. Ask about a product's greenness according to its energy consumption. Consider how far a product has been shipped, whether it's made with highly processed materials, whether its content is largely petroleum or chemicals.
The blueberries in the grocery store these days come from New Jersey and Michigan. Bamboo is considered eco-friendly because it grows quickly and is easily replenished, but it has to be shipped here from China at great energy expense.
• Get the story. "Look for companies that have an authentic story to tell, something of substance," says Sara Snow, host of the Discovery Health's Get Fresh With Sara Snow and a lifelong follower of the green lifestyle. She specifically seeks out products that are made by family-run businesses, community cooperatives and other groups that share her personal values.
• Look for labels. Some day, home goods will have the equivalent of the food industry's USDA Organic label to verify a product's claim. For now, you must rely on mixed (but trusted) designations, such as Energy Star, Greenguard and Fair Trade Certified.
• Transparent is clearly better. If a product's ingredients or story are confusing, vague or missing altogether, its claims may not be legitimate. In its recent study of 1,018 green products, environmental marketing firm TerraChoice found the "sin of vagueness" to be rampant.