Shopping with Earth in Mind

The eco-friendly revolution begins at home, with ffective consumer products that make a true environmental impact.

Bringing home truly green products can put a smile on the face of any eco-conscious consumer. Of course, we’re talking about those “green” products that offer a real improvement in environmental impact over their counterparts. If these products serve their purpose well, too, these shoppers will keep smiling, all the way back to the store they got it from to buy it again and again. We might be considering anything from eco-friendly household cleaners to green fire logs, but the equation for success will remain the same: green and effective is the name of the game.

Products with a Conscience
A shopper is telling a friend about their recent purchase of a green cleaning product. The friend reacts this way: “Oh, you bought an eco-friendly detergent…that’s nice. I actually want my clothes to be clean, though.” Eco-friendly product companies have heard this song before. “I think this notion is somewhat a residual result of the green movement of the late seventies and eighties that brought us really green and terribly ineffective cleaners,” says Kipling Wagner, national communications and social media manager for Ecover, Inc., Long Beach, CA.

Science has caught up with the environmental movement, she says, so now effectiveness and green attributes, including a lack of harmful chemicals, can go hand-in-hand in a green product. The research and development team at Wagner’s company works both in-house and with universities to break new ground. “Recently, we paved the way for extraordinarily powerful surfactants, made through a fermentation process much like making beer that simultaneously breeds powerful surfactants (those molecules that ‘eat’ dirt) while making very little impact on the environment,” she says.

Barry Firth, general manager of Biokleen Industries, Inc., Vancouver, WA, says that while his firm’s products work, not all green cleaning products can make the same claim. Spreading the news about this has been a long-term process. “Word of mouth, online reviews, and the reputation and longevity of the company come into play,” he says.

For all green products, the test of their worth is the ability to go toe-to-toe with their conventional counterparts in the market. For Ross McRoy, president of Enviro-Log, Inc., Fitzgerald, GA, this means replacing good-old firewood. As for how these logs, made from recycled material, stack up against wood, he cites statistics such as 50% more heat production, 33% less greenhouse gas emissions and 80% less carbon monoxide. This cleaner burning log is even safe to cook with, making it the “ultimate wood substitute,” he says.

Like many other commercially available fire logs, the heat provided in terms of British thermal units (Btu) exceeds that of firewood while cutting down on smoke. The difference is the eco-friendly production cycle McRoy’s company utilizes: food-grade wax boxes are used to make the fire logs. “It’s the preferred container used in the agricultural industry to move vegetables to stores, and we give the retailer, or the generator of the wax—a produce company, a grocery chain, a restaurant—an option to take that out of landfill and make a difference,” McRoy says, adding that these moisture-resistant boxes don’t break down easily in landfill.

By recycling this waste product and turning it into an energy product, the need for wood is offset, thereby reducing air pollution. The ideal scenario is an eco-friendly, closed-loop cycle. “At the end of the day, when you make that business decision as a retailer to divert the wax, send it to Enviro-Log and sell the product back in your store, you’re reducing your green house gas associated with that wax box by over 55%,” McRoy explains.

Personally green. The notion of a green lifestyle doesn’t necessarily exclude a little selfishness. People want to keep themselves and their families pollution-free. Many consumers, Firth notes, have chemical sensitivities and allergies to go along with their environmental concerns. “Biokleen customers recognize that a ‘green environment’ doesn’t necessarily refer to distant rivers, trees and hills, but also includes an indoor environment where families and pets reside,” he says.

Wagner concurs that personal health is an element of environmentalism, and that toxin-free green products of all kinds are the way forward. “It’s been said, one of the most polluted places we inhabit all day is our own home! That’s due in part to the cleaning products under our sinks. Other contributors are furniture and carpeting. If we can positively impact our primary environments by making a simple change in our cleaning products, then why wouldn’t we?” she says.

Forging ahead. Though much progress has been made, the march of green products toward popularity and their simultaneous effort to fulfill environmental values continues. Innovation like her company’s 100% PlantPlastic bottles, Wagner notes, can be groundbreaking. She compares this development to companies that extol the benefits of “up to 30% plant bottles.” An admirable step in the right direction, but 100% is better still. “By using sugarcane- versus petrochemical-based plastic, we’re helping our consumers and ourselves cut down our carbon footprint and we’re reducing our reliance on petroleum. Importantly, using sugarcane, as opposed to corn-based plastic, means we’re not infringing on the global food supply either!” she explains.

Environmentalists must continue to dream big, as Wagner attests with her description of the futuristic concept of catalytic clothing. “Essentially, this is the nanotechnology to change—clean—the air around us by cleaning it with our clothes. It sounds very science fiction, but it’s quite real,” she says. Indeed, research and development is underway for this idea, which involves the use of photocatalysts. These catalysts are made active through sunlight, and after being applied to clothing when they’re washed, they are meant to speed up the breakdown of airborne pollutants. “Imagine the day when we can walk around cleaning the air as we move through it?” she says.

Onward and upward is the operative attitude driving many green product makers. Established in 2004, the idea behind Enviro-Log started on a piece of paper, and is still undergoing improvements. McRoy says the toughest hurdle in getting the project off the ground was educating consumers, and especially suppliers about the savings and the positive impact of jumping on board (he says they have over 100 suppliers and are looking for more). Success in this endeavor allowed them to begin accumulating the raw material necessary, and finally, meeting consumers’­­ expectations for an effective fire log came into play. “We developed, in the last five years, several generations of improvements on the product, to continue to chip away at all the customer feedback so that we can continue to make better products,” McRoy says.

Green? Says Who?
Despite all the success stories in the green products market, there is still consumer skepticism to be dealt with. Fair or unfair, the proliferation of products touting “green” as an attribute tends to dilute the term in the minds of many. There are what Wagner calls an overabundance of green logos and claims on product packaging these days. “I think the most powerful are those that clearly state what they represent and don’t leave room for misinterpretation or green washing,” she says, citing the creation of a special logo to go along with the launch of her firm’s 100% PlantPlastic bottles, to clearly communicate the improvement.

Asked about the concept of creating stronger certifications or programs overseeing “green” products and their marketing, Wagner says, “It’s been my experience that people want a universal seal until the government or big business gets involved, and then they no longer trust those seals to mean what they may have meant to in the beginning.”

There is also the dilemma of how wide a net should be cast when judging green products and conveying their attributes to consumers. It is difficult, Wagner points out, to address every consumer’s concerns on one label. “For instance, you may qualify for a ‘biodegradable’ seal, but where does that leave you on sustainability, fair trade, etc?” she says. It’s hard to try to maintain relevance toward the many aspects of environmentalism at once, Wagner argues, without ending up skimming across the surface. McRoy agrees, saying that as each industry tries to govern itself in terms of what’s considered “green,” one ends up seeing specified programs such as that of OMNI-Test Laboratories, an emissions standards certification for products like Enviro-Log.

A few broad attempts are being made to inform consumers of the environmental profile of products. “There are already some decent certifications, like the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Design for the Environment, Greenseal and EcoLogo. Each certification has unique attributes, fans and critics,” says Firth, adding that his company is involved with the EPA’s Design for the Environment and adheres to Whole Foods Market’s Eco Scale program for most products.

In any event, consumers that care enough about the environment are bridging the knowledge gap on their own. “Dying a product green and calling it a ‘green’ cleaner isn’t good enough anymore. Consumers are asking more questions and doing more research, either by calling a company directly, visiting the company’s Web site or asking their retailer,” Firth says. A retailer’s reputation for selling eco-friendly products, he adds, plays a large role in the behavior of environmentally conscious consumers. Mobile applications that let one see product ratings based on their environmental background, while shopping, are empowering consumers as well. WF

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, April 2012