With most manufacturers trying to convince you that their products are sustainable, it’s becoming tough to determine what really are the best products and materials for your health and the environment. But once you understand the following terms, you’ll be able to use common sense to determine whether companies are telling the truth or not.
Rapidly renewable resources are materials that regenerate quickly in nature. Bamboo is a renewable resource because stalks grow to maturity in five to seven years, plus they require no pesticides and little water to grow. Today bamboo is used for flooring, cabinets, countertops, and even clothes and towels. Who knew those leafy stalks could be turned into incredibly soft, absorbent, and fast-drying fabric?
Renewable materials are also biodegradable and are produced from agricultural crops, so they don’t take energy other than the sun to grow (although some require considerable energy to manufacture, which is another factor to consider). Cork, wheatboard, organic cotton, and wool are other examples of renewable materials.
Recycled and salvaged materials are being used in carpet, countertops, lighting fixtures, and more. Anytime you use something that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill, it’s a good thing. Reusing what already exists is almost always better for the environment than making something from virgin materials, whether it means buying a table at a garage sale, gathering waste from one manufacturing process to use as an ingredient in something else, or re-milling beams from a torn-down building into tongue-and-groove flooring.
Products that incorporate post-consumer recycled content (such as used bottles) are generally considered more eco-friendly than those incorporating pre-consumer recycled content (such as manufacturing waste).
Low- or no-VOC products are those that emit little to no volatile organic compounds. Because so many products in our homes release VOCs over time— including furniture made of plywood or particleboard, vinyl shower curtains, mattresses and upholstery treated with fire and stain retardants, and carpeting— the air quality inside our homes is often much worse than it is outdoors.
According to the American Lung Association, VOCs can cause eye and skin irritation, breathing problems, headaches and nausea, muscle weakness, and liver and kidney damage.
People with chemical sensitivity often can’t live comfortably in spaces with even minimal amounts of VOCs, while others aren’t as noticeably affected. These toxins affect mostly children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems, but the combination of all of these chemicals in our homes may be a factor in the development of cancer and other serious illnesses.
In addition to being dangerous inside your home, VOCs eventually migrate outdoors, where they mix with other substances in the air and turn into ozone, which is a component of smog. So buying low- or no-VOC materials is important not just for your own health but for the health of the planet. Federal and state legislation now regulates the amount of VOCs contained in coatings such as paint and stain. Laws vary by state, but generally manufacturers must limit the VOCs in their finishes to 350 grams per liter.
For a product to be considered low-VOC, it must generally contain no more than 50 grams per liter. VOCs in other products, such as furniture and mattresses, are not regulated, which is why it’s important to look for products that have other environmental certifications, such as Greenguard.
Locally produced products, just like locally grown food, are eco-friendly because they didn’t have to travel far to
get to you, resulting in fewer carbon emissions along the way. A marble countertop from China that travels by truck and boat to get to your door takes a lot more gas and energy than ceramic tiles made locally, for example.
Durability is not a green feature you hear much about, but it stands to reason that buying well-made furnishings that will last a lifetime is more eco-friendly than buying something less well-made that will wear out or fall apart and end up in the trash. Yes, you will pay more for well-made products, but think of the money you’ll save over time when you don’t have to buy the same thing every 5 or 10 years. Similarly, low-maintenance items are often considered eco-friendly because you won’t have to paint or stain them as frequently, meaning they will have less of an environmental impact over time.
Energy-saving products are of course green, even if they are made with materials that are not. For example, high-performance windows made out of PVC vinyl are a green product because they make the building more energy-efficient, even though they are made with a material that is unhealthful for the environment and people both during its production and at the end of its life cycle.
There are, however, a growing number of energy-saving products that are made with nontoxic and recyclable materials, such as recycled cotton denim insulation.
Environmental certifications can help you determine whether what you’re buying was brought to you in a responsible way. For example, buying wood that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council means that the wood harvesting was legal, that the forest wasn’t clear-cut and old-growth trees weren’t used, that the rights of indigenous communities and workers were respected, and that wildlife habitats were not negatively affected. While there are other certification bodies, only the FSC has the full support of the environmental community, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.
There are many other independent certifications for products ranging from household cleaners to furniture to mattresses. Some certifications include:
Green Seal conducts scientific tests to ensure that eco-friendly products work as well as or better than others in their class, and the organization visits the manufacturing plant to ensure that the production process has little or no impact on the environment. Look for the Green Seal logo on paints, cleaners, and floor-care products.
Greenguard tests products for the amount of chemical and particle emissions they release and certifies that they are healthful for your indoor air quality. It tests construction products such as adhesives and insulation; interior furnishings, including electronic equipment and wooden furniture; and finishing materials such as floor, wall, and window coverings.
Cradle to Cradle certification looks at the complete life cycle of a product and all of its ingredients. Products certified by Cradle to Cradle will either biodegrade and restore the soil or be fully recycled into high-quality materials for new products, eliminating the concept of waste. The type and quality of energy required to make a product, the water quantity and quality involved, and the manufacturer’s social responsibility are also considered in the certification process.
It can sometimes be daunting to remember all of the factors that make a product eco-friendly and balance those issues with your needs and budget, the style of your house, and the health of your family and the environment. If the most important thing to you is indoor air quality, then you might select a product that was manufactured far away or that does not incorporate any recycled materials, simply because it uses no-VOC finishes. If carbon emissions are what you’re most concerned about, you may choose a product made locally even though it isn’t low-maintenance and will require the application of chemical finishes to refresh it every few years.
There are very few products that meet every single criterion discussed on the previous pages. To help you weigh the factors, ask the following questions about the product you’re considering:
■ Where did it come from?
■ How many miles did it travel to get to you?
■ What mode of transportation was used?
■ What is it made of?
■ Are there any recycled materials incorporated?