Green for Me or Green for Us

Small plant in a woman's hand

What is green for me isn’t necessarily green for us. What is green for now isn’t necessarily green forever. Global sustainability as a standard isn’t necessarily the only way each of us makes choices for our families.

One of our customers asked, “What is the difference between products that are green for the environment and green for health?” That is a seemingly simple question that breaks out into a lot of complexities depending on how we make our choices. To look at it very simply, products that are green for health have no (or fewer) immediate negative effects on us; products that are green for the environment have no (or fewer) global negative effects. The problem is, the global negative effects as immediate to someone, and they do come back to all of us as they change and poison our basic resources. We end up with poisoned water from pesticide runoff with convention cotton growing, flooding after mountain-top removal to mine coal used to produce moderated scrubbed “clean coal” energy, high asthma rates near power plants using natural gas for more so-called clean energy, and so on.

Just because a particular choice is good for the planet, a choice like organic clothing, doesn’t mean it has an immediate impact on health. Choosing organic fibers has a big impact on global health, though, and it has a big impact on the immediate health of workers in the fields. Poisoning the fields today will continue to have immediate effects close to the field and downstream effects for us all. By the time those effects are felt, will we still connect them to the choice to buy organic clothing or not? I hope so, but we don’t always draw straight lines that way. Is organic clothing good for my children’s immediate health? Probably not. Is organic clothing good for the environment? Absolutely. As I wrote earlier this week, though, the choices with children’s clothing aren’t black and white, and other issues (like short-term cash flow) can trump our best intentions.

Most of us as parents are trying to improve choices. Some of the problems we are trying to solve are acute; some are chronic. Some of the problems we are trying to solve involve immediate effects on our children; some are global.

Ultimately, green for the environment means green for health in the long term. What is good for the environment, what is sustainable is good for you. You can pay the price now or later, but we all share positive and negative effects on our global environment.

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My Conscious Choices, Your Conscious Choices

Which one should I choose?Why do you do what you do? What flipped your switch and helped you realize that you could make a difference in the choices you make for your children and for your family? Or, was it a gradual dawning realization that you didn’t have to do what everyone else around you was doing?

So many of the subjects dear to us at Eco Baby Steps are about personal choices—often about personal changes. How do we open ourselves up to change then reach that moment of action in a new direction?

I’ve been thinking, as Earth Day is coming and everyone has a pitch, how do each of us make sure that we are doing what we think we are doing? How do we make sure that we look at our environmental choices or our parenting choices or any choice in our lives while in a state of wakefulness, looking at implications, meanings, and contexts without getting so wound up that we shut right back down again?

Stay awake! Check your own consciousness.

If you don’t want to fall for just any tip or buy anything because it is labelled “green” or “natural,” you need to know why you are making the choices you are.

For me, for example, renewable resources are very important. When I looked at cloth diapers for my children, it wasn’t just a matter of being satisfied with reusability. I wanted to use materials that were natural, with at least a chance of disintegrating in the compost and returning to the Earth. The value that drove me was natural materials. Waste or low water use or cost might drive the cloth diaper choices of others.


Ask Yourself a Few Questions

Take a deep breath, open your eyes wide, and ask yourself a few questions as you hear the Earth Day pitches.

  • Do I want to do this?
  • Why?
  • Really?
  • What priority does it have in my life?
  • OK, when? Should I do it immediately, phase it in, or should it go on a wish list?

Here are a few examples of choices we might make as we engage ourselves. The menstrual pad conversation is hypothetical, since I made the switch a long time ago, but the fair trade chocolate conversation happened only a couple of months ago.

Amy wrote last week that it is easy to use cloth menstrual pads.

  • Do I want to use cloth pads, too? I think so. It doesn’t sound too bad.
  • Why? I feel bad throwing out disposable products when I am so committed to reusable products in other areas of my life.
  • Really? Yes, I’m going to do it.
  • What priority does it have in my life? The cost is low, so I am going to make this a high priority.
  • When? I am going to switch completely this month. I can try it and see if this is a choice I want to make long term.

I wrote in February about shocking labor conditions for children with non-fair trade chocolate.

  • Do I want to switch to only fair trade chocolate? Absolutely.
  • Why? I just can’t take a chance that I take pleasure in a product that caused so much pain to another in its production.
  • Really? Yes. I just don’t look at a bag of M&Ms the same now.
  • What priority does it have in my life? Highest, though I don’t want to spend too much money. I can go without chocolate if necessary. I won’t buy non-fair trade chocolate at all.
  • When? Immediately.

We did make this switch completely and immediately. Calming my biggest chocolate-related worry, I found fair trade milk chocolate (Sunspire), and tonight, as I write, my children and I are going to make chocolate chip cookies with fair trade semi-sweet chocolate chips that come in bulk in our local conscious grocery. (What do we call those now? Used to be a “health food store,” but it is just our grocery store.)


Where Is The Truth In Environmental Claims

Engage yourself in a short conversation before you follow marketing pitches this week to “green your life” or “lower your impact” or “don’t listen to those other guys because we’re telling you the truth.”

The truth in your choices is in your values. It doesn’t work to just say that everyone should make the same choices. Yes, there are observable, material impacts to our actions that should be taken into account. Yes, laziness can often drive our values. If we can overcome our tendencies to avoid change (“Oh, I just don’t know if I could use reusable toilet wipes.”) or difference (“If I wear my baby in a sling, people might look at me.”), we ought to land somewhere in the area of choices that will actually lower our impact. I might add insulation to my walls and attic while you take the train. I might buy a reusable water bottle while you turn your compost. These aren’t comparable choices. We each have to make our own choices, and we won’t know which are the right choices unless we wake up and ask ourselves.

May your resolve be strong and your consciousness engaged this week so you don’t fall for every call.

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Lower Environmental Impact of Cloth Diapers

Flawed UK diaper studyAround Earth Day there is a lot of talk about which baby products are best for the environment. Watch out for the lie that disposable diapers are either a better choice or that they have the same environmental impact as cloth diapers. It isn’t true, and it’s easy to trace the source of this misunderstanding.

In 2005, a study came out in the United Kingdom comparing the lifecycle analysis (the overall impact) of cloth diapers with disposable diapers. Unfortunately, the study stacked the data in favor of disposable diapers, using best-case future projections for disposable diapers and no data for low-impact reusable cloth diapers. Even this flawed study and its follow-up a few years later found very little overlap between the highest impact cloth diaper and the lowest projected impact for disposable diapers. If they had bothered getting current low-impact data for cloth diapers or using projected future data for cloth diapers, there would have been no significant overlap. If they had considered all of the external costs associated with oil and gas used to make plastic, impact would not even be close.

In the body of the study, the data show that careful washing and drying of cloth diapers makes the environmental impact of cloth diapers far less than the environmental impact of disposable diapers. That isn’t what they wrote in the conclusion, however, so disposable diaper companies, even those that market themselves as so-called eco-disposables, dig no further than one line in the study to justify their claims.

The data does not support the claim. If anyone tries to tell you that the impact of disposable diapers is less than or equal to cloth diapers as marketers take advantage of Earth Day, set them straight. Don’t accept greenwashing. Read the review of the UK diaper studies at What a Waste to get the real scoop.


Lower the Impact of Your Diapers

The key to lower impact for cloth diapers is washing and drying. This is true of all of your home laundry.

The takeaway is obvious: wash with care; care how you wash.

Reusable cloth diapers leave disposable diapers sitting, fuming in the landfill when it comes to real impacts and the way real parents wash their cloth diapers.

How do you lower impacts of reusable cloth diapers?

* Use Energy Star rated washing machines.
* Wash diapers at 140 degrees.
* Air dry.
* Use washable wipes and liners.
* Use low-impact detergent.
* Use organic products.
* Reuse diapers for the next child, then give them away or sell them to another.

From What a Waste, a project of Real Diaper Association.

Read more about the UK study: “Flawed Impact Studies Review”

Green Certifications: Familiar Seals

half-leaf-300A new report shows that consumers do look for familiar eco seals. What are you looking at when you see that merit badge sash of seals? What do these familiar seals mean, and how will they help you make green choices? We’ve separated the list into four types of seals:

  • Memberships
  • Awards
  • Pledges & Petitions
  • Certifications


Memberships

Memberships often let you know what community or professional organizations the website belongs to. For manufacturers and retailers of baby products, you will find a variety of memberships from community review directories like The Babywearer and Diaper Pin to Real Diaper Association and Miracle Diapers, both charities dedicated to cloth diapers, or the Real Diaper Industry Association, a cloth diaper industry trade association.

When do memberships help you make greener choices? Green America Business Network has members who also go through a rigorous screening process before they can display the business seal of approval. Green America looks more at the impact of the overall business than the individual products, but this seal is a great start in your search for greener products.


Awards

You may notice that a lot of cloth diapers and baby carriers are described as “award-winning.” What are the awards, and what do they mean? Below are some of the awards you will find on baby products.

iparenting media awardFor the iParenting Media awards, a manufacturer submits a product and pays a $300 fee. Then, paid reviewers put the product through their evaluation system. If chosen, the product is then promoted by iParenting Media.

For the Mr Dad Seal of Approval, a manufacturer submits a product and pays an evaluation fee of $129.95 to cover administrative costs. Those products chosen for approval then carry a seal from “America’s Most Trusted DadTM,” who is a newspaper columnist and radio host on fathering topics.

PTPA Media, Parent Tested Parent Approved, also requires manufacturers to submit product and pay a $400.00 to cover administrative and promotional costs. The product is reviewed by four reviewers and PTPA Media. If chosen, the product can carry a seal and will be included in promotion and media.

Great Gear of the Year Award from Shape You for sports, health, and fitness products requires a $75 submission fee. If the product is not chosen for award, it will still be featured on the website for one year.

Best Product Award by Orca Communications Limited (PR firm) is found in their Best Products for Babies & Kids Media Guide. They gather images and information about new products so media don’t have to do separate research.

Book or magazine endorsements often carry the logo of the publication. Whether these products are submitted for review or chosen by the editorial staff varies.

None of these awards listed tells you whether the product itself is lower impact than any other. Many product awards are marketing opportunities that don’t give you the kind of information you need to make greener choices. As alluring as the words “award-winning” can be, don’t be misled into thinking that awards give you information beyond meeting criteria that are not always made public.


Pledges & Petitions

I Took The Handmade Pledge! BuyHandmade.orgHave you seen bloggers and website owners declare I Took the Handmade Pledge from BuyHandmade.org? Or, maybe you have seen a blog with a badge that says My Blog Fights Climate Change from the 350 Challenge. Pledges can give site visitors an indication of commitments, while petition seals and banners are often posted in order to activate visitors to become signers.

Among the seals you might see on natural parenting websites are breastfeeding petitions like the Canadian Breastfeeding Protection Petition from the Infant Feeding Action Committee and the Breastfeeding Petition to President Obama from the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee (a 501(c)(3) nonprofit).

Another common seal within the past year has been support for handmade toys linking to a petition to save micro-businesses from heavy-handed U.S. regulation at Save Small Businesses from the CPSIA from the Handmade Toy Alliance. Similar petitions have circulated for other children’s products, such as CPSIA Impacts on Children’s Apparel Industry.

While pledges and petitions won’t tell you about products specifically, they can give you an indication whether your values and those of the business owner align.


Certifications

energy-starA certification mark is a kind of trademark that carries a legal assurance. Not all certification seals are certification marks. There are a lot of eco-labels and certifications for green building, but there are only a few eco labels that conscious consumers have become quite familiar with to the point that they actually seek out these labels. Energy Star, for example, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a mark consumers look for.

While a seal from the Better Business Bureau has nothing to do with green or environment, it does show that the business has been accredited and adheres to the BBB standards and code of business practices. This is a great baseline for good business practices.

One of the most common certifications you are most likely to see on children’s products is an organic seal. Certified Organic varies by country. In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program oversees organic certification. In Canada, organic certification on a national level is new this past summer. Cloth diapers and baby carriers can be made with certified organic materials, and whole products can be certified organic. Beyond organic is Demeter biodynamic certification.

Eco Logo is a Canadian government certification for sustainable products based on lifecycle. Green Seal uses science-based sustainable standards and is most often found on building and facilities-related materials. You might find it on household cleaners. More likely on products for home and family is a common seal like the Green Goodhousekeeping Seal.

Another kind of certification that isn’t about environmental impact so much as a generally healthy environment for you and your family is the Asthma and Allergy Friendly Certification, which can be given to any product that is marketed allergy-friendly.

Certification seal and certification marks give you the kind of substitute trust you need when you are far removed from the producers of the goods you use. Legal guarantees, standards, and third-party certification gives people reassurances. They should not, however, be substitutes for building trusting relationships with producers who are engaged in their communities and working to lower their impact in ways very much like you are.

See also:

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Green Certifications: Do Consumers Care?

half-leaf-300The same day I posted the whys and meanings of green certifications, I caught a link to a report that says that consumers pay little or no attention to the certifications. Consumers don’t trust the trustmarks. That is disheartening for those who are trying to do right by consumers—or even those who are looking for an effective marketing tool.

For familiarity, three U.S. government seals rank highest:

  • Recyclable (89% familiar),
  • Energy Star (87% familiar), and
  • USDA Organic (62% familiar).

Familiarity is one thing, but does the seal influence purchase? Some do:

  • Energy Star (31% always),
  • Recyclable (20% always),
  • USDA Organic (8% always), and
  • Smart Choice (7% always).

The most interesting point to me was the fact that most trustmarks fail to drive sales—most. To which consumers do the seals and certifications connect? To the “Enlighteneds.” According to this particular segmentation of consumers, there are: Enlighteneds (10% of consumers), Aspirationals (20%), Practicals (30%), and Indifferents (40%).

Enlightened consumers are the most driven by their values when making purchasing decisions and will go out of their way to reward companies who align with their social goals. Aspirationals are more likely to balance their ideals with convenience and often switch between social concerns, availability and price when making purchasing decisions. Practicals are looking for convenience and prioritize products based on price, quality and energy efficiency. Indifferents are the least motivated by social concerns and prioritize price, quality, convenience and products manufactured in the United States.” From Food Marketing Institute.

Want to hear the rest of the story? You can order the Conscious Consumer Report for only US$2,495. Knowledge can loses its appeal when you check the price tag.

Given the 400+ seals, there is a danger that seals and certifications will become so diluted that they are meaningless. Maybe they already are. When I saw the row of seals on a booth at the ABC Kids Expo, I thought, “Wow, they have a lot of certifications.” When I checked more closely, there were NO certifications. The seals represented memberships and affiliations. This isn’t meaningless, of course, but it was a let down.

There are times that certifications matter. As an example, coffee growers and marketers have made it really clear that there are three relevant certifications: organic (important for the health of the fields and the workers), fair trade (which indicates where profits go, that workers are owners not serfs on plantations), and shade grown (which is important for the workers). In this case, consumers who are concerned tend to be well educated about the three important seals to look for.

What seals and certifications matter in buying products for your family? As I wrote earlier, this will depend where your own values lead you, but it is worth seeking out those products that meet your expectations and aspirations. It may be worth it to you to reward those companies who make an effort to let you know more about themselves and their products through memberships and pledges as well as certifications.

In the next installment, I will go through some of the seals you may see when buying products for your baby and family.

See also:

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