Shopping 201: Making Change

June 1, 2008

The words, "shopping responsibly" take on a whole new meaning when the environment comes into play.

By Keri Luly, LEED AP

During a class on the true meaning of sustainability, I notice the attendees start out leaning back a bit, listening with somewhat detached interest about the challenges of Life Cycle Assessment; sit up a bit when hearing what "new car smell" actually is; then begin scribbling notes (and looking a bit startled) during the consumers section. Formaldehyde in our bed linens? Chemicals in the "fresheners" we spray into the air? Kids' pajamas treated with flame retardants? Environment really hits home when health issues are tied in.

The class only lasts for an hour so it always seems that we have to wrap up too soon. Most of the group heads out, chattering enthusiastically, but inevitably, someone hangs back wearing a troubled expression-and I know what they're going to say. "I'm overwhelmed. As I learn more about this, I have no idea how to find products with less impact."

Last month, in "Shopping 101: What About the Small, Cheap Stuff?" I talked about the impacts on "invisible" workers overseas and the environmental impacts from buying cheap, soon-to-be-tossed items. Earlier, in "The Chemicals We Live In," I discussed the synthetic chemicals in our consumer products that end up in our lungs, on our skin, or in our stomachs ... usually without us realizing it's happening.

The first step toward changing for the better is becoming an aware (and slightly overwhelmed) consumer.

SPENDING DOLLARS, MAKING CHANGEWhen you spend dollars on consumer goods, you are essentially voting with your purse (or wallet)-telling retailers and manufacturers what you want them to offer. It's hard to "vote" for things that aren't yet on your store shelves.

In our professional lives, it's becoming easier to find green products for clients through certification programs, LEED®, product directories, and our colleagues' experience. In our personal lives, it's another story. Green gets a lot of media play, but when it comes to shopping for environmental and social change, many people are in the same situation as those in my class.

What is a newly conscientious consumer to do? Even if we buy fewer disposables and become recycling maniacs, we still need a lot of "stuff" to thrive and enjoy life. We need our stuff; we love our stuff; our stuff is important to who we are. So, where are the "responsible" products that don't offgas into our living spaces or promote child labor in foreign lands? How do we find coffee and chocolate from companies that pay a living wage to the bean pickers and don't devastate rainforests?

While dashing through the grocery store after work, you probably notice more green labels but have also heard about greenwashing so you're wise to be skeptical. Unless you shop at that trendy, specialty grocery chain store or maybe the co-op/health food store, you won't have much of a clue for locating environmentally and socially Responsible products. And when you're browsing your favorite discount houses or even upscale department stores, you probably won't find them there either. Cities tend to have a few more of the unconventional stores that readily provide these products than smaller towns do.

Fortunately, there is a blossoming world of interesting, low-impact products out there and you can increase their numbers by sending a message to manufacturers with your buying habits. For now, the best way to shop is likely to be online and through the mail, but you can quickly be overwhelmed when searching the Internet for "green products."

I don't normally endorse for-profit businesses or products, but I'm going to bend my rule a bit to encourage the success of businesses that are going beyond the norm and taking risks so that we'll ALL be healthier. I always want to be sure I'm really getting what I think I am and that my credit card number is used only as I intend, so I suggest starting with a few trustworthy sources. There isn't room here to list individual producers, so I'd like to introduce you to a few publications that link you to them:

  • The National Green Pages (NGP) is not your ordinary "catalog." It's published by the nonprofit organization Co-op America, who has been making it easier to live a green and fair lifestyle through its publications and programs for 25 years. Don't expect glossy product photos in catalogs that arrive too often and generate a lot of trash. The annual catalog prints listings for companies that have been screened based on their commitments to social and environmental responsibility and their actions in carrying out their commitments. Do you want organic flowers delivered? Do you want to burn candles without petroleum, lead and synthetic odorants? Do you want to encourage small businesses and fair trade practices that help communities? NGP also contains interesting stories about companies who are striving to do better and logos to indicate which listed companies are members of the Fair Trade Federation. You'll receive the catalog and extremely valuable smaller publications that provide advice and warnings so you know what to look for in the products you bring home. 
  • Gaiam's three categories of catalogs feature consumer products (mostly for the home) with high standards for manufacturing and social responsibility. And, if you want to start moving toward the use of solar energy in small steps, go to and prepare to be amazed. The catalogs arrive a little too often for my preferences, but I usually end up sharing them.
  • Natural Home magazine is my inspirational source that provides good ideas for greening homes. It also contains a variety of new product introductions, and regular reviews of the sorts of products we're likely to use when sprucing up or building new homes. Green is the primary focus, but fair trade is sometimes mentioned when describing new products. Maybe someday I'll recycle my old copies, but my husband will have to pry them out of my hands first!

In addition, there are a couple of new sources worth watching:

  • Green Guide, a new publication from National Geographic just came out and appears to provide advice and product information, although I haven't had time to thoroughly study it just yet.
  • Project Good is a newly launched eBay (yes, eBay!) online market created in conjunction with Co-op America and World of Good (a Fair Trade organization). I may have to give up my skepticism, considering the partners in the project.

I hope these suggestions help-this list usually turns my students' expressions from stressed to intrigued. Are you curious about the meaning of fair trade? That's probably a good topic for Shopping 301!

For now, please don't forget:

First, before you buy, evaluate whether you really need the new item, how long you will use it, whether you can find it used, and whether it can be reused or recycled later; second, for those products that you need to buy, remember that your dollars and buying habits have a powerful impact on the environment and communities all over the world; and third, shop responsibly so you're sure to be getting real change for your dollars.


Keri Luly has elected to donate her monetary compensation for the articles she writes to an environmentally pro-active organization of her choosing. This issue, she has selected National Geographic's Mission Programs, which support critical expeditions and scientific fieldwork, encourage geography education for students, promote natural and cultural conservation, and inspire audiences through new media, vibrant exhibitions, and live events. Go to to learn more.

Keri Luly, LEED AP, is Allsteel's stewardship coordinator and regular contributor to EnvironDesign Notebook. She can be reached at [email protected].

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