Greening your purse

Can what you buy really make a difference?

By Katharine Mieszkowski
Published February 29, 2008 10:34PM (EST)

"Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World" by Diane MacEachern is a fat compendium of tips on how to buy items from furniture to cosmetics that are more environmentally friendly, without getting bamboozled by greenwashing. Broadsheet e-mailed MacEachern, an environmental writer based in Washington, D.C., to ask her what changing your shopping habits can really do for the Earth and to protect you and your loved ones from toxic scourges.

What's the "Big Green Purse" pledge, and how many women have taken it?

It is part of the One in a Million campaign, an initiative to encourage 1 million women to shift money they're already spending on household goods to products and services that protect the environment. The pledge specifically asks shoppers to shift $1,000 of money they're already spending to green goods. It's been in "beta" form, but so far about 2,000 women have signed up.

Isn't there something paradoxical about the idea of green shopping, as if we could credit card our way to environmental nirvana?

In the last eight years, apart from some modest wilderness legislation, we've made no progress protecting the environment using the legislative or regulatory process. On the other hand, manufacturers have been working day and night to keep up with consumer demand for green products, and by doing so, they've reduced their overall environmental footprint.

Yes, it would be ideal if citizens could pass strong laws and have the government enforce regulations. But that's not going to happen anytime soon. Meanwhile, the way consumers spend their dollars offers a bright "green" carrot that rewards manufacturers for reducing pollution, saving energy and minimizing their use of dangerous chemicals. Plus, letting consumers exercise their clout in the marketplace is having an effect in some ways that legislation will never have. For example, the Toxic Substances Control Act grandfathers in at least 65,000 dangerous chemicals that will probably never be controlled by Congress or statehouses. Fortunately, consumers can still protect themselves based on how they spend their money. If products are toxic, consumers can buy the alternative.

But isn't there only so much that we can do at an individual level? Won't a problem of the scale of global warming require us to pressure our government to take international action to solve it?

Clearly, we need to continue to pressure the government to act. But no one should ever wait for their leaders to lead! Look at the Kyoto Protocol. The U.S. has received international ridicule and rebuke for failing to sign on to a climate control strategy that hundreds of other nations embraced. But individually, city and state governments have acted independently to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, inspiring millions of citizens to follow suit.

Look at history. Virtually all successful movements for change -- social, political, environmental -- have started with individuals. As citizens, we also have to be realistic when it comes to protecting ourselves and our families. The government is actually prohibited from regulating ingredients in personal care products; the industry is allowed to police itself. That's a case where if the individual doesn't act -- to avoid phthalates, parabens, antibacterials and even fragrances in cosmetics, soaps and lotions, for example -- the exposures will go on ad infinitum.

If you're only going to change a few things in your shopping cart, what are the areas to look at that have the biggest impact?

Certainly, saving energy is a priority, given the impact burning fossil fuels has on climate change, air quality, habitat destruction and human health. When you're replacing anything that uses energy -- from a light bulb to a refrigerator to your car -- buy the most fuel-efficient option available, then use it as efficiently as possible. Energystar lists the most fuel-efficient options for dozens of appliances.

To protect your health, consider all the personal care products you use: shampoo, lotion, makeup, aftershave, hair color, shower gel, etc. Protect yourself from the "endocrine disruptors" and reproductive toxins many of these contain by avoiding phthalates, parabens, triclosan and other antibacterial agents, along with fragrances (a big contributor to respiratory problems associated with indoor air pollution). Cut back on your use of paper products. Paper manufacturing destroys forests and is one of the most polluting industries on the planet. Replace throwaway towels and napkins with cloth; use reusable shopping bags; print out fewer computer documents, but when you do, use recycled paper to print on both sides, then recycle the used paper again.

What other changes do you recommend?

Most people don't realize they should be reading the labels for eco-data the same way they look for nutrition information on a food label. If people actually started reading the fine print, they'd start avoiding harmful ingredients. I'm amazed people are still buying bottled water. They're paying oodles of dollars to make a bottle they're going to throw away, after they drain it of water that, 40 percent of the time, comes out of their tap.

More shoppers could start buying products (especially detergent, fabric softener and other cleaning products) in bulk sizes -- they'd create less trash and help industry save energy overall in resource use, manufacturing and shipping. Of course, the most important action is to consume less overall. "Keeping up with the Joneses" should be called "Driving up climate change" or "Wrecking the planet," since constant consumerism creates so many environmental problems. I encourage people to "window-shop" if they want the vicarious pleasure of buying. Otherwise, avoid fast fashion trends (to save energy and reduce toxic pollution associated with producing fabric), upgrade rather than buy new electronics and computer equipment and donate everything (clothes, electronics, home furnishings, tools, vehicles) to minimize what you throw away.

Do you think that the current interest in shopping eco is just the latest trend, or is it a longer-term shift in the culture?

I honestly belief a major cultural shift is taking place. The links between protecting human health and the environment are real, and will always be a factor we need to contend with. The energy crisis is real -- we're running out of oil and have no choice but to find alternatives for the future. People are destined to become more -- not less -- educated about the impact their choices have on the planet, and about the impact they can have in the marketplace to create change. People are becoming empowered to make a difference, and as they do, I believe they'll aspire to do more.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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