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.
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.
Tara McBride, a mother of three in Lonelyville, N.Y., drives an extra 40 minutes round trip for organic meat and produce. "You can't buy it everywhere," she says. Nor are employees always well informed. "I can walk into a supermarket and ask a butcher, 'Can you get me some organic meat?' He'll say, 'We have some all-natural here.' That doesn't mean anything." She looks for "grass-fed," "no hormones," and "no growth stimulants."
Time represents another challenge, MacEachern says. "Women are swamped. Often they don't have time for research."
Money can be an issue, too. MacEachern finds that women are willing to spend between 5 and 20 percent more for environmentally friendly products, but they need information. Karen Smith, a communications director in Boston, says, "There is a preconceived notion that if you go into a natural store, you are automatically going to lose money. If you check circulars and cut coupons, there are ways to save."
She rejects some products in traditional supermarkets. "I stand at the top of a cleaning aisle, which is a quarter of the length of a football field, and see large-size containers with chemicals, and plastic. I wonder, where was this produced? How is this going to be disposed of? And how is this going to hurt things?"
Many women object to packaging. "One thing I would love to see is reduced packaging," says Anne-Marie Kovacs of Henderson, Nev. "Most of it is plastic that's not recyclable.... It's atrocious."
The packaging industry is mindful of the problem. "There's a great deal of interest in the industry about making packaging more green, more environmentally friendly," says JoAnn Hines, founder of Women in Packaging. Wal-Mart, she notes, is demanding that its suppliers reduce packaging – or use packaging that can be recycled or disposed of in an environmentally friendly way.
Even so, there are limits. "You cannot have a product without a package, and you have to get it from point A to point B, pristine, undamaged, in salable condition," Ms. Hines says. "Demanding that packaging be reduced could impact the quality and the shape it arrives at the store in."
Joy Sutherland, a public relations manager in Memphis, Tenn., buys products in containers her local recycling program accepts. These include glass, aluminum, paper, and certain plastics. She buys detergent in plastic jugs instead of cardboard, and eggs in plastic cartons instead of Styrofoam or cardboard. "The biggest obstacle is the fact that our local program doesn't accept things that [make up] a lot of my garbage, like cardboard containers."
Ask 'Where are the organic apples?'
MacEachern urges women to be more assertive. Noting that she shops at a variety of stores, from Safeway and Giant to Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and farmers' markets, she says, "If I don't see what I want, I'll talk to the manager. I'm not shy about saying, 'If I don't see it here, I'll have to go someplace else.' They never say, 'Go, then; take your business elsewhere.' It's empowering to ask a produce manager, 'Where are those organic apples?' "
Women do not have a lock on green shopping, of course. Renee Miller, president of an advertising agency in Los Angeles, says that she and her husband have started paying attention to what goes into products – soaps, shampoos, conditioners. "Dyes and chemicals can be very harsh on the environment. We look for things that are more environmentally friendly."
Women and men also have another responsibility: teaching the next generation. Referring to her teenage son and daughter, MacEachern says, "We took them to see the Al Gore film. They recycle. And ... they learned to drive on a hybrid."
As MacEachern mobilizes "purse power," she sees reason for optimism. "Women are definitely ready to make a difference," she says. "They just want to be sure they're making the right difference."