How to Identify Truly Green Products

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Don't fall for seductive marketing. Know what labels actually mean.

Buying eco-friendly products has never been more popular, but unfortunately many shoppers don't always get what they think. Brands have become wise to the fact that shoppers are susceptible to certain colors, buzz words, and claims, without understanding what they mean, and they use these to their advantage. Shoppers, meanwhile, often fail to educate themselves about ingredients and key phrases, making it easy for them to be duped by manufacturers.

Writing for Earther, Ian Graber-Stiehl cites a Consumer Reports survey that found 68 percent of people think that a 'natural' label on meat means it has been raised with no artificial growth hormones, while 60 percent thinks it means GMO-free, "despite the fact that FDA guidelines for 'natural' are right now virtually meaningless." 'Organic' is often misinterpreted as 'free-range' and thought to mean that no chemicals are allowed, which isn't true:

"While companies have to earn the iconic green and white label through avoiding many synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, plenty of compounds are approved for use on organic produce, including copper compounds, hydrogen peroxide, soaps, and pyrethrins."

A 2014 survey of Millennials found that 30 percent of this demographic group perceives products as more sustainable if they feature green-colored packaging, and 48 percent are swayed by nature imagery. This goes to show that people aren't thinking enough about the contents, their backstory, and the packaging itself; they're relying on what the brand chooses to reveal.

As a green lifestyle writer, I think a lot about these things when shopping. At times I experience 'analysis paralysis' because I feel like I know too much about too many things. When faced with decisions about the best product to buy, I often have to weigh options according to priority. Very few items tick all the boxes, but running through a mental checklist helps me to make the optimal decision in any situation. Here's how I figure out what to buy.

1. What's in it?

If I'm buying food, cosmetics, and household cleaning products, the ingredient list is my first focus. It reveals the chemicals that I'll be applying to my body, to my kids, and spraying throughout the house, and this matters a lot. At first glance, shorter is better when buying skincare and food, but specific ingredients matter too. Anything with palm oil (and all its sneaky names), I avoid religiously. Then I consult lists such as Gill Deacon's handy Wallet Card (printable here) for toxins to avoid and the EWG Skin Deep database if I don't recognize a name.

2. How is it packaged?

Packaging is important. A few weeks ago I was in a convenience store that had conventional powdered laundry detergent in a paper box and eco-friendly liquid detergent in a plastic jug. I ended up choosing the paper box, because I couldn't stand the idea of bringing home a plastic jug; I figured the long-term effects of that jug on the environment would be worse than the effects of the ingredients from the powdered detergent. (Usually I avoid this by buying powdered natural detergent in a paper bag.)

I prioritize glass, metal, and paper packaging, as these can be more easily recycled, reused, or biodegraded, and I look for less packaging, choosing unbagged products whenever possible. My pet peeve is when packaging is labeled enthusiastically as 'fully recyclable' but does not contain any recycled material itself; to me, that screams a double standard on the company's part.

3. Location

Location matters, both in terms of where an item was produced and where I'm buying it. If I have the choice between overseas or domestic production, I choose domestic. I try to buy products from independent stores, as opposed to huge corporate-owned chains, especially those I can access without a car. When it comes to food, I strive to shorten the supply chain as much as possible, ordering products directly from local farmers, shopping at markets, picking and freezing/preserving fruit in summer.

4. Certifications and logos

Many products are polka-dotted with logos indicating third-party certification schemes that 'verify' a brand's eco-friendly or health claims. These cannot be trusted without knowing their source. Consumer Reports' Greener Choices initiative can be helpful with this, breaking down specific terms like 'cage-free', 'pasture-raised', 'non-GMO', and 'fair trade', and explaining whether these mean what they say. It's a good idea to know which certifying bodies are more reputable than others -- for example, Fairtrade International, Rainforest Alliance (for rainforest-sourced products and tourism), Leaping Bunny (no animal testing), and GOTS (for fabric).

5. The greenest thing is the one you don't buy.

Certain purchases, like food and clothing, are a necessity for life. But many others are not, and simply fuel the rampant consumerism that is responsible for so much resource consumption and creation of waste. Better than any fancy label is choosing to leave an unnecessary product on the shelf and doing without. It sends a subtle message to the manufacturer, keeps money in your pocket, and slows the accumulation of clutter and eventual landfill waste.