A greener planet begins under the kitchen sink
When the subject is the environment, Diane MacEachern has long been ahead of the times. Thirty years ago, she earned a master's degree in natural resources and the environment. And 20 years ago she helped design and build the energy-efficient house in the Washington, D.C., area where she and her family live.Skip to next paragraph
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Now she hopes to be in the vanguard again. Next week she is launching a national campaign and a website, BigGreenPurse.com, urging women to shift at least $1,000 of their annual household spending to green products. On average, people spend $18,000 a year on groceries and household goods.
"Women spend 80 cents of every dollar in the marketplace," Ms. MacEachern says. "We could be the most powerful force for economic and environmental change in the 21st century if we focused our money where it could make the biggest difference. If a million people did that, it would have a $1 billion impact."
As she outlines these benefits to women she meets, she finds an enthusiastic response. "Women love the idea that they have that much power in their purse," MacEachern says. "It can get them a future they want to leave to their kids – clean water, clean air."
For many years MacEachern focused on changing public policy. Although that remains important, she became frustrated by the "dilly dally" approach of Congress and state legislatures. "It can take years to pass legislation," she says. "But in terms of providing an incentive for manufacturers to reduce pollution, we can influence that much more quickly in the marketplace than we can through regulation."
For many people, the marketplace question becomes: What should I buy?
"You start with the products that make the most difference to you," MacEachern says. "You also try to focus on the product that has the biggest impact in protecting the planet." She offers six suggestions:
• Organic, locally grown food. Because it doesn't use pesticides, it immediately helps water quality, species protection, and health.
• Energy-efficient appliances. That can be as simple as energy-efficient light bulbs. When replacing an appliance, choose the most energy-efficient model.
• Fuel-efficient cars. "Buy the most fuel-efficient vehicle you can get in your class and price range," she says. "That will have a direct impact on air quality."
• Nontoxic cleansers. "It's ironic that so many cleaning products are linked to toxic chemicals," MacEachern says. "This whole notion of the dirty kitchen and the deadly bathroom – we have been sold such a ball of nonsense by manufacturers of cleaning products. All we really need is water, baking soda, distilled vinegar, and common liquid soap."
• Shade-grown coffee. US consumers drink one-fifth of the world's coffee. "It should be grown in rain forests, but instead it's grown in equatorial countries. Coffee plantations cut down rain forests." A shade-grown coffee industry is developing to renew the rain forest.
• Phthalate-free cosmetics. Because the cosmetics industry is not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency, power for change resides in the marketplace. (Phthalates are plasticizers found in some perfume, nail polish, deodorant, and more. Researchers have linked it to health problems in laboratory animals.)
Unregulated labeling is a problem
But even the best efforts to wield consumer clout face obstacles. One involves labels. "There's no regulation of words like 'ecofriendly,' 'green,' and 'good for the planet,' " MacEachern says. "Anyone can smack those on the label."
Generally, she finds that the more ingredients on a label, the less safe a product may be. The more understandable the ingredients, the safer it probably is. Availability poses another obstacle. Only about 4 percent of food is organically grown.