Fuzzy Green

Whenever I’m in need of a new cleaning solution, I’m inevitably drawn to the green products I see on store shelves. I’m intrigued by their slick packaging, pretty colors, and minimalist design. Even so, part of me always wonders: just how green is this product? Do the clean lines and pastel colors of the Method cleaners really mean that they’re going to be better for the environment? I always mean to research the product in question so I can make the right choice the next time I’m at the store, but I almost never do, and always end up buying the same old thing.

So I wasn’t surprised at the findings in this Brandweek article, which I came across while researching the July Test Product of the Month, and which confirmed a lot things I already suspected about the current frenzy for “green” products.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think that any big movement that gets the country thinking about how they can help the environment – no matter how shallowly it’s treated in the press – is a good thing. After all, people will never act unless they’re informed about a problem, and will never change their habits until they feel pressure (peer, financial, political or otherwise) to do so. So if the media creates a trend that makes people feel guilty about driving big cars and wasting gas, and it results in increased funding for public transportation, smart community planning, and less air pollution, then I’m all for it.

However, I wasn’t surprised that the consumers in the Brandweek piece were, at best, befuddled about green products – what they are, what makes them “green,” and even which products are environmentally friendly.

The article reported on a study called Eco Pulse, which was conducted by the Shelton Group, and which surveyed consumers about their green buying habits. Not surprisingly, while consumers indicated that the environment was an important consideration in their purchasing choices (49 percent), only a small portion said that environmental concerns actually drove them to buy different products (21 percent). And only seven percent could actually name the green and/or environmentally friendly product they supposedly changed their habits to buy.

The following paragraph nicely illustrated just how befuddled consumers are when it comes to green products:

Even something as simple as defining what makes a green cleaning product had many puzzled. While the top answer (“no harmful toxic ingredients or chemicals”) was on point, the runner up (“the packaging is made of recycled or recyclable materials”) missed the point entirely.

Okay, okay, so it’s not like this is that surprising. I mean, if half of young Americans in 2006 couldn’t find New York on a map, then how do we really expect consumers to become experts in the chemical makeup of green toilet cleaner, or how differences in farming techniques affect the carbon footprint of an organic tomato grown in Peru versus a non-organic tomato grown on a local farm?

Still, while it’s tempting to step back and laugh at the consumers in the Brandweek piece, I’ll be honest and admit that I’m a good example of this consumer confusion and inaction. I’m moderately interested in environmental issues, but I still get confused about what’s really environmentally friendly, and I make relatively few purchases based on environmental concerns. I know it’s better to buy local produce, but I rarely ever make it down to the farmer’s market. I know that bleach is toxic, but I’m still using a bleach-based bathroom cleaner. I know that there are all kinds of harmful chemicals in cosmetics, but I’m still using my old, probably toxic foundation, mostly because switching brands is going to take a lot of research and will probably cost me more.

And really, let’s give consumers some credit: even environmental experts who do this stuff for a living have a hard time figuring out how the life of a product actually affects the environment. This New Yorker article about carbon footprints will make your head spin, but it will also make you realize that you’re not alone in your green confusion.

So, I guess the big question is, what do you do if you’re like me – kind of environmentally conscious, with a genuine desire to use products that won’t harm your health or the planet, but pretty confused and inactive about the whole thing?

Really, the only advice I have to offer is to try to do what you can, but not to the point of burnout. While some may disagree with me, I believe that, for most people, if you zealously try to make every purchase the most environmentally friendly it can possibly be, you’re just going to get overwhelmed and fall back on your old bad habits. Most importantly, try to remember the big things: buy less and try to purchase what you really need, since ultimately what needs to happen isn’t that everyone buy Seventh Generation Window Spray, but that everyone actually consumes less.

Of course, many sources have much better, and more specific, advice about how to make green consumption a reality. A few that I like are below:

  • The Greenwash Brigade: National Public Radio’s Marketplace convenes environmental professionals who look at “green” claims of companies, government entities, and other groups. It’s an awesome resource for those who want to find out just how “green” that new organic cleaner really is.
  • GreenerChoices.org: A Web site compiled by Consumer Reports, with information on green products, green product labels, green buying guides, and more.
  • Grist: A hip environmental news site with plenty of information on green living, green products, and, most importantly, a sense of humor.

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