Wooden brush with jars on top of sticks.

Finding Eco-Friendly Products

How do you determine how green a product really is?

Why should we buy eco-friendly products?

Buying eco-friendly products is an important aspect of the Reduce step in sustainability. Supporting companies and buying products that utilize sustainable practices helps to support reductions of environmental impact from the beginning of a product’s lifecycle. Purchasing from companies with fair labor practices supports healthy economies and quality of life for workers and communities. And with responsible purchases, the need for Reuse and Recycle decreases. Furthermore, sustainable products are better for your health. Clean products are free from toxic chemicals, such as pesticides, that can cause a variety of significant health issues.

But before you buy a new product, evaluate whether you truly need it. Overconsumption is the norm in our society and we have become so conditioned to buy more that we often don’t even stop to think before doing so. This is the first and most important step of all to live sustainably.

Less purchasing = Less waste

When you do need something new, try your best to buy locally-produced items. This supports the economy in your area and while decreasing emissions resulting from shipping.

Also consider buying something used. This is an important component of a circular product lifecycle. Shop at local thrift shops, flea markets or garage sales, online marketplaces, or your local Buy Nothing group, which are local community groups that offers goods and services to each other at no cost. These are also all great places to pass on your unwanted items and decrease waste.

How do you know if a product is eco-friendly?

This is the million dollar question. It takes some effort to discern which products and companies are actually sustainable. The biggest reason why this can be so difficult is greenwashing.

plant growing in a jar of coins

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is essentially false advertising, a marketing ploy to make a company or product seem more eco friendly than it really is. Greenwashing companies use outright false or misleading messages to generate support from customers, shareholders, employees, and the general public. It is really easy to fall prey to these subtle claims, but once you are aware of them, you will find that greenwashing is everywhere. Some common greenwashing examples to be aware of include:

  • Vague claims like green, sustainable, eco-friendly, non-toxic, and natural. The use of these buzzwords is meaningless without data and/or certifications to back up them up.
  • Labels and packaging with that appear eco-friendly with nature scenes and the like.
  • Claims of work-in-progress without actual data, such as “we’re on our way to zero emissions” or “we’re working toward xyz.”
  • Claims of future advances, from major milestones that are decades away, i.e. “net-zero by 2050” to products that don’t exist yet, such as “coming this spring…”
  • Focus placed on initiatives like tree planting to distract you from the other ways a company damages the environment.
  • For more greenwashing info, check out articles by the WWF and NRDC.

How to see through the greenwashing

The quickest and most reliable way to judge whether a company’s sustainability claims can be substantiated is whether they possess any third-party eco-certifications. These business sustainability certifications offer assurance that a product lives up to a specific, rigid set of standards regarding things like sourcing, production, toxicity, and/or labor.

The product packaging will usually list sustainability certifications. You can also find these on company websites, where sustainability reports can also be found, if they have them. Make it a practice to examine company pages for the presence of this information. I find some brands have no mention of sustainability at all on their site, and these are easy to eliminate from my purchase options.

Learn about the most common eco-certifications you want to look for on your products.

Read ingredient labels

Unless you are a chemist, you probably won’t be able to discern much from the tongue twister ingredients listed. Right there that tells you about the number of unnatural ingredients, right? Either way, you want to identify toxic chemicals in products. You can read more about the ingredients to avoid in cleaning products or beauty and personal care products (which many of them are the same chemicals, yuck).

Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a great resource to help you learn the ingredients you want to avoid in beauty products. The Retailer Report Card ranks companies on their efforts to reduce/eliminate harmful chemicals.

A quick and easy way to check ingredients is by using an app. I do this all the time when I am shopping, and it’s also helpful to go through the products you already have on your shelves.

  • My long-time favorite app is called Think Dirty. You can enter the name or scan the barcode of tons of personal care (and cleaning) products and they have a rating system of how ‘dirty’ they are based on the ingredients. It’s kind of a fun and addicting activity going through the house, scanning everything you find. Or is that just me? One thing to note is that any product with added fragrance rates poorly since those ingredients are unknown–as mentioned previously, fragrance is proprietary and the ingredients don’t have to be disclosed, therefore companies could easily hide ingredients as “fragrance.”

Sustainable product packaging

An additional challenge is finding the winning combo of products that both contain natural, non-toxic ingredients AND are enclosed in eco-friendly packaging. Aim for products you like that are packaged in materials like recycled or sustainably sourced paperboard, recycled plastic, or infinitely recyclable materials like glass and aluminum. Of course, package free is the best if you can find it. Some companies offer refills for their products.

One way you can cut down on packaging is buying in bulk. For food items, take your own reusable bags, like these ones I purchased from Etsy. And don’t forget your reusable produce and shopping bags. Some smaller bulk specialty shops offer cleaning products and beauty/personal care products where you can take your own containers and fill them.

Recycle packaging as able

Make sure you recycle packaging as able. Here’s a brief rundown on responsibly disposing of packaging materials (click on the material type links for more information):

  • Glass – recycle curbside as available or at a drop-off bin.
  • Steel, tin, and aluminum – add to curbside mixed recycling. Aerosol cans are acceptable if they are empty.
  • Paper products – curbside mixed recycling.
  • Plastics #1 and #2 go curbside, check with your local recycler whether number 3-7 are accepted. Note that spray pumps cannot go into your curbside recycling since they contain a metal coil in addition to the plastic.
  • Plastic wrap – recycle at a grocery store drop off location.
  • Terracycle has many options for hard to recycle packaging and numerous other items.
  • Find recycling options for beauty and personal care products.

More questions to help determine product sustainability

The key to researching whether a company is sustainable is transparency. As you study a business’ mission statement or sustainability practices, use critical thinking to see through potential greenwashing. Look for actual data and facts to back up claims to help you make your best judgement.

Answers to the following issues should be available on a company’s website. If they are not, ask; the more they hear how sustainability is important to their customers, the more likely they are to take action.

Sustainable and ethical sourcing

What does sustainably sourced mean?

  • Were the materials obtained with sustainable practices, or did its harvesting contribute to deforestation, air pollution, or harm to animals? Here are a few examples to illustrate how this can be verified:
    • Paper products are FSC-certified
    • Animal products like wool and down feathers were gathered by cruelty-free practices
    • Sustainably-sourced coffee and palm oil, like those certified by the Rainforest Alliance and the RSPO
    • Organically-grown cotton and other crops for textile production, certified by GOTS
  • Are there added chemicals, toxins, or pesticides? Is there a healthier option? The EWG or Made Safe certifications are a couple of the resources available to you.
  • What materials were used to make this product? Are they natural, or is there a natural or more sustainable alternative, including packaging?

Environmental impact of production

  • Does the company have clear cut actions they are taking to improve energy efficiency, reduce water use, packaging waste, and more? Are they certified by a company such as bluesign or UL ECOLOGO?
  • Is the company addressing their carbon emissions? Are they Climate Neutral certified?
  • Are recycled materials being used? Producing items from recycled materials conserves natural resources, energy, and decreases pollution.
worker bending over in a rice paddy

Social and Economic impacts

Product end of life

The best companies will create their products with its end of life destination in mind.

  • Is it biodegradable or compostable?
  • Is it recyclable?
  • Where will this product ultimately end up? If the answer is landfill, is there a better product alternative?

Why are sustainable products expensive?

In general, you may end up paying more for green products. There are numerous reasons for this. The simplest explanation is that it can be very expensive for a company to do everything possible to be sustainable. Therefore, in order to turn a profit, their product prices must reflect that.

Higher production costs

Organic crops are a perfect example: since no pesticides are used, crop yield is lower and therefore producers much charge more to cover operating costs. Another instance is companies that use renewable energy may in turn have higher operating costs than those powered by fossil fuels.

Fair wages

Companies that prioritize ethical labor results in increased costs due to higher wages and working conditions. Many laborers and farmers are exploited and grossly underpaid. At the risk of sounding harsh, we should all be willing to spend a little extra to support companies that uphold Fair Trade practices to ensure other human beings can make a livable wage in safe conditions.

Eco-friendly product packaging

Plastic is very cheap to produce, so companies that use other types of packaging for their products pay more. Even producing recycled plastic can cost manufacturers up to 600% more than virgin plastic. Glass is much heavier than plastic, which leads to higher shipping costs.

Cost of sustainability certifications

The cost of obtaining eco-certifications can add up, especially for smaller companies. For instance, the fee to becoming a Certified B Corp is a minimum of $2000 and scales with revenue. But that doesn’t include the costs a company must incur to meet the requirements.

Lack of demand

I personally think this is the biggest issue. Not enough people buy these kinds of products, so companies have to charge more to turn a profit.

Read PBS’s take on why it’s hard to become a sustainable business.

A co-founder of a financial firm that lends to sustainable companies said, “Bringing down the prices of eco-friendly products will come from massively growing demand for eco-friendly products. The more we can make it easy for consumers to pick eco-friendly products, the more there will be a demand for those eco-friendly products and the more the prices for those products will fall.” This is where much of our power lies. A perfect example of this are EVs. They were initally very expensive, but with the increased demand, they are now close to matching prices of gasoline cars.

Do what you can

man holding child by the hand walking on the beach into the sunset

I think it is helpful to look at purchased of environmentally friendly products as investments in yourself, your community, future generations, and the planet. I believe that many times it is even possible to make up the financial difference if you pay attention to what you are buying. And even if you end up paying more overall, I think spending a little extra is a worthwhile cause.

I’ve also always been a firm believer in paying more for quality, and quality lasts longer. You end up buying less and saving money in the long run. The upfront costs might be more, but if you buy quality and take care of your items, they can last a long time.

That being said, I know everyone’s financial situations are different, and the bottom line is we just have to do what we can. Many sustainable actions have little to no cost. Decreasing food waste is something anyone can do for little or no cost, and it also has the biggest impact. Buying pre-owned goods is both cheaper for you and a way to extend the life of items. Make your own cleaners. Start small and buy one reusable item when you can—maybe a nice water bottle, a set of reusable zip top bags, reusable napkins or paper towels, or wool dryer balls. Every little thing adds up.

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