Throughout the country,
stores sell products with claims
that they are “safe for the environment,” “ecosafe,” “recyclable,”
“degradable,” “biodegradable,” etc.
This may be well-intentioned shorthand,
but sometimes it is “green
washing” – making things look “green” that aren’t.
What these terms tell us, and what they
don’t tell us, influences
what we buy and affects the environment.
These labels may refer to
the product and not the packaging,
the packaging and not the product, or to both.
Often, it is hard to tell.
without specific information, we cannot evaluate the claim. Likewise, a label may state that a package
has “less waste than our previous packaging” – but without specifics,
statement is only window dressing.
Labels sometimes say that
the packaging or a product is made
from recycled materials, but we are not told how much of the packaging
recycled. The label also may not say if
the recycled material is pre- or post-consumer waste.
“Pre-consumer” is waste left over
materials from the
manufacturing process, while “post-consumer waste” is material already
consumers, put into recycling bins, and then made into new materials. The market for pre-consumer waste is already
developed. It is important that the
market for post-consumer waste be developed in order to keep pace with
public’s recycling efforts. When
possible, purchase items that state at least some post-consumer
materials. Also not found on labels are
under which the products are made. For
example, Nike shoes can be found in recycled packaging – but the labels
alert us to sweatshop conditions in Nike’s overseas factories.
You may see the label
“safe for children and pets” or
“non-toxic.” As “toxic” is not defined,
for all we know, the statements could mean as little as “No one will
horrible and instant death from this product.”
Crayola crayons, which kids often chew
as they use, claimed to be
non-toxic, but were exposed as containing lead. On
the insecticide Raid, the label said in big letters:
“Made with Pyrethrins: Pyrethrin
is Made From Flowers.” In small print,
it also noted that only 0.08% of the product is from the plant. Ninety-eight percent is from “inert”
ingredients not required to be listed despite their potential dangers. Dursban is also an ingredient and a known
neurotoxic; and another chemical, pipernyl butoxide, actually increases
toxicity of the other chemicals in the product.
There are a host of
plastic items that say “recyclable” or
“please recycle.” These products,
however, may be made from materials that are not recycled in the
which they are sold. Sometimes these
products are made from a mixture of materials that makes recycling
impossible. Germany tackles this
problem by making manufacturers financially responsible for the waste
produce giving them incentive to create products that are easily
chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were banned from most
consumer products and are being phased out from others – but products
“CFC-free” or “ozone-friendly” may still damage the atmosphere. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which
contribute to ozone problems, are still found in cleaning products,
polishes, charcoal lighter fluid, White Out, windshield wiper fluid,
butane, propane, and isobutane, as well as hair sprays, hair gels and
in aerosol cans and spray pumps. Safer
hair products can be found in the Co-op’s health and beauty aids
and safer household cleaners in our grocery department.
These still come in plastic containers,
please be sure to reuse or recycle them.
“compostable” can be found on some
products these days. But anything –
even organic food waste – that is tossed into a landfill degrades at an
extremely slow rate, because modern landfills are covered to keep
from escaping. The covers also keep out
light and moisture, which are needed for decomposition.
A product can also be called
but it is not necessarily organic or even safe. Proctor
and Gamble claimed their plastic, disposable diapers
could be composted into fertile soil!
I recently examined two
spray cans of air freshener from the
Co-op. One said “environmentally
friendly” and “please recycle.” The
other said “recyclable aluminum can.”
The first had a plastic pump that could
be removed, making it possible
to refill and reuse or recycle the can.
The other had an aerosol spray
attachment that could not be removed, and
therefore could not be recycled.
Environmentally, the choice is clear.
The best bet, however, is to bring small
re-used bags to the Co-op and
buy your favorite smelling spices and herbs in bulk.
Make your own mixture to put in a reused
pump spray bottle, or
place them in a small dish and leave them exposed to scent the air. Replace as needed. Baking
soda in a dish will absorb odors. When it
needs to be replaced, it can be
poured in your sink or toilet and used for scouring, then harmlessly
down the drain – cleaning it as it goes.
Compare the labels on the
two types of toilet tissue carried
at the Co-op. Next, compare these
products to toilet tissue you see in chain stores.
Compare our dental floss, packaged in
cardboard wrappers, to the
plastic-wrapped floss in other stores.
Try this with other products, too, and
with a bit of practice, you will
learn to sift out the “green” from the “greenwash.”
The Federal Trade
Commission has issued guidelines aimed at
stopping greenwash advertising. In
France and the Netherlands environmentalists have introduced
for national legislation. Various
organizations are trying to counter corporate greenwashing with
(510-834-8990); strategies to stop sweatshops Co-op America
(202-972-5307); resources for building a
sustainable future, alternative marketplaces, ending sweatshops
Corporate Watch (415-561-6568, www.corpwtach.org):
If you have questions or
comments about reducing our impact
on the environment, please drop them off at the Co-op in the suggestion
box. We’ll do our best to address them.