It's hard to walk down the grocery aisle these days and not be swallowed up in the rising tide of "green" advertising.
Shelves are packed with products boasting natural, partially recycled or earth-friendly content. Unfortunately, many eco-friendly claims are misleading. A company touts some narrow green quality, but behind the scenes, it strains the environment with inefficient manufacturing facilities or modes of transportation. The practice of "greenwashing" makes it tough to distinguish between fact, fiction and fluff. However, with this guide in hand, environmentally conscious consumers can identify the truly eco-friendly products.
Rule 1: Not all green claims are created equal
The first thing a shopper must remember is that most green-marketing words and phrases are completely unregulated. Anyone can claim that a product is "natural, local, environmentally friendly, free-range or earth-friendly."
"Be wary of unqualified claims," says Prudence Ferreira, sustainability coordinator for Amy's Kitchen, one of the first companies to successfully sell prepackaged, organic products. "Go to the company's Web site and make sure they substantiate their claims with solid evidence. Something that sounds too good to be true is probably based on the loose interpretation of a green marketing term."
One of the few claims that is strictly regulated, however, is the term "organic," which leads us to Rule 2.
Rule 2: Look for the USDA Certified Organic label
The phrase "certified organic" is strictly regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Certified organic products must adhere to a rigid set of rules and regulations. For example, all organic farmers are banned from using toxic pesticides and sewage sludge fertilizers in their soil, antibiotics and growth hormones in their meat, and genetically engineered ingredients in their final products.
Organic companies are required to keep detailed records and submit to yearly inspections by a USDA-approved certifier. However, look out for those few companies that still try to get around national organic standards, warns Ferreira.
"Certain companies try to get around the regulations by calling their company 'organic something' when their products aren't really organic." So, it's very important to look for that official, USDA-certified organic seal.
Rule 3: Packaging is key
A company that is environmentally mindful will use as little packaging as possible. Manufacturing facilities use substantial amounts of energy to create packaging materials; therefore, excessive packaging wastes energy, depletes natural resources and contributes to global warming. A clue to a company's sustainability standards is the material from which their packaging is made. Are they using plastic to wrap their products or is their packaging made from recycled content? Is the packaging recyclable or will it have to be dumped in a landfill?
"Virgin content uses a lot more resources in terms of energy, water and power than recycled content does," says Ferreira.
Rule 4: Go bulk
"Rather than getting a cereal that is wrapped in plastic in a cardboard box, why not take your own bag to the bulk section of your local grocery store? You can buy as much or as little as you want and totally bypass the too-much-packaging problem," suggests Annie Hoy, outreach manager for Ashland Food Co-op.
Most grocers have at least a small bulk section where nuts, rice, flour, cereal or pasta are available in bulk containers. When shoppers consistently reuse their own bags, they can fill up on fresh food that's better for their health, the environment and their wallets.
"The cost of the packaging and advertising on the packaging figures into the cost of the food inside," adds Hoy. By buying in bulk, consumers can save money and energy and preserve the environment.
Rule 5: Avoid processed foods
"If you want to eat a more earth-friendly diet, you want to cook more from scratch and avoid processed foods," says Hoy.
Food processing is an energy-intensive industry where whole foods are broken down and infused with additives, textures and colorings. Not only do processed foods have less nutritional value than whole foods, they also place a much greater strain on the environment.
"If the label bears some long, scientific ingredient that you don't recognize, you know that the food is highly processed," informs Hoy.
The ideal diet would include local, organic, whole foods cooked from scratch, but that suggestion isn't always realistic in today's society. If you don't have time to cook from scratch, select the brands that list fewer, more recognizable ingredients.
Rule 6: Buy local
Locally grown and produced foods have less impact on the environment than imported foods.
"Local products don't have far to travel. So when you buy local products over big-name brands, you are reducing greenhouse-gas emissions," says Ferreira.
Also, local produce is more healthful. Fresh produce loses nutrients rapidly. The longer produce has been on a truck, train or in a holding facility, the less nutritional value it contains. And as an added bonus, buying local products stimulates the local economy and helps build a sense of community.
Rule 7: Do your own research
The only way for consumers to fully know how green a product is from farm to cart is to conduct their own research. Most brand-name companies buy their ingredients from suppliers who may or may not be environmentally conscientious.
Generally, if the company prides itself on maintaining earth-friendly practices, it will require higher standards from its suppliers. Amy's Kitchen, for example, encourages all their suppliers to green their practices by providing them with a sustainability checklist.
To select companies with the best overall integrity, investigate their sustainability practices: view their Web sites, read their annual reports or contact the companies.
"Consumers can make a difference," says Ferreira. "Ultimately, it's informed consumers that drive a lot of companies to dig in a little deeper and go that extra mile to green their practices."