If you try your best to shop green, you may have noticed that your shopping list gets a bit more complicated with every new environmental buzzword that comes along; scan the shelves at any store, and you’ll find lots of products promoting eco-friendly features. Almost every product has a green or greener counterpart, but it can be hard to know which is which unless you know the lingo on the packaging.
Before you head to the store, try to familiarize yourself with the most common environmental terms and certifications; and think about ways you might be able to make more efficient purchases. Just a little bit of know-how will help you sift through products and guide you to making greener purchases. Here are a few words, labels, and ideas, so you can be a confident green shopper — and get shopping!
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This is a tricky one — there is no single, government-regulated definition for “natural”. The FTC, FDA, and USDA all have their own standards to determine what makes a product “natural”; so that label could mean that the flavoring in your favorite, packaged treat is derived from a natural source (like a plant), that your meat contains no chemical preservatives, that something’s been minimally processed, or any number of other things. If it’s important to you that a product comes from a “natural” source, or is processed “naturally”, keep in mind that a “natural” label does not necessarily encompass both meanings.
A product is biodegradable if it can decompose into a natural element in a relatively short time period, when exposed to sunlight. The FTC regulates use of the term “biodegradable” on products and packaging, but in the end, what biodegradability depends on is you! The FTC can’t account for variables like where a product is eventually disposed — even the most natural of products won’t degrade if it ends up at the bottom of a landfill, never exposed to sunlight. If you purchase something labeled “biodegradable”, you can feel confident putting the product in a compost pile, where it will be exposed to sunlight and quickly return to nature.
Many items are recyclable, it’s just important to check how the item is recyclable or what part of the item is recyclable. It could be the product that is recyclable, or maybe the packaging. Consider checking your city’s website to see where you could recycle an item marked recyclable — you might be able to put it right in your recycling bin, or drop it off at a local supermarket, or recycle it through a mail-in program.
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|USDA Organic Seal
The USDA Organic seal certifies that the product contained within the packaging is made of at least 95% organic ingredients or materials. To be organic, a product must have been farmed without the use any number of harmful chemicals or processes — so something organic may also be better for the environment than its non-organic counterpart.
|Fair Trade Certified Label
The Fair Trade Certified label identifies products that meet criteria set by TransFair USA, like transparency, community development, and environmental sustainability through improved soil fertility and limited use of potentially harmful agrochemicals, so that you can rest assured that the product is free of genetically modified organisms [GMOs], farmed in a way that improves soil fertility, and made with limited use of potentially harmful agrochemicals. You can find this label most often on coffee, tea, and chocolate bars.
|ENERGY STAR Label
Products with the ENERGY STAR label meet strict energy efficiency guidelines set by both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy — any product that meets these guidelines contributes to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, energy usage, and often, your bills. You can find the ENERGY STAR on a variety of products, from washers and dryers to battery chargers; if you spot the label, you can know that that product is a great green option.
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You can shop green by shopping differently, too. Here are a few ideas you might consider before you complete your shopping list:
|Try This: Cleaning with Food
White vinegar can be used undiluted or in a solution with equal parts water as an all-purpose cleaner for countertops, toilets, glass, floors, and appliances. Lemon juice can get rid of grease or stains in grout, and coarse kosher salt makes a good abrasive scrub for pots, particularly cast iron, and even bathtubs.
|Try This: Scrubbing with Reusables
Scrub and wipe with re-usable rags, microfiber cloths that soak up more at one time, or old newspapers.
|Try This: Nearly-Indefinite Energy Efficiency
Compact fluorescent light bulbs [CFLs] are ENERGY STAR® certified, use up to 75% less energy than conventional bulbs, and can last up to 12 times longer. Another green lighting choice — albeit a very expensive green choice — is LED bulbs, which can last up to 10 times longer than even their CFL counterparts.
|Try This: Scents From Nature
Your home can smell just as sweet (and less artificial!) with the generous use of baking soda: Leave an unobtrusive bowl in a corner of the bathroom, or sprinkle some over carpeting before vacuuming.
You might also consider making your own air freshener by adding a few drops of your favorite essential oils to a spray bottle full of water, or you could try out an earth-friendly air freshener or odor eliminator, like Fresh Wave products, which use molecular science instead of chemicals to clear the air.
You can also look for earth-friendly candles like soy or beeswax candles, which burn cleaner and contain more sustainable materials than many conventional candles.
|Try This: Reading Those Labels
Once you’re familiar with what different labels mean (and remember, you can always check back here!), put that knowledge to use. When you’re out, check for USDA Organic, Fair Trade, or ENERGY STAR labels — and of course, consider the packaging, too. If the packaging is recycled or recyclable, or made from less material, then it is a probably a good, earth-friendly bet. A bonus? There are many products that qualify for more than just one certification.
|Try This: Eating in Bulk
Head to the bulk foods aisle for items like granola and rolled oats, which can save on excess packaging. Chances are, ingredients like those are also organic or made without artificial ingredients.