The Green Spotlight
Ever since Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published in 1962 (sparking people’s awareness of health threats from chemicals, and leading to the ban on DDT 10 years later), an array of scientific studies have shown that various toxic chemicals and pollutants—in our air, water, soil, food, yards, indoor environments (homes, schools, and workplaces), and household and personal products—are causing or contributing to a myriad of public health problems. Such problems range from asthma, allergies, headaches, and skin and respiratory conditions to serious reproductive/endocrine (hormone) problems, neurological problems (including learning problems and lower IQ), birth defects, and many types of cancers. Children and babies are particularly vulnerable, including through pre-natal exposures. And people in certain occupations (such as janitors, farm workers, and nail salon staff)—who have jobs in which they are regularly exposed to a stew of toxic chemicals—suffer from higher rates of certain health conditions than the general population.
Unfortunately, many toxic chemicals remain virtually unregulated, and existing regulations are not adequately enforced. Most products and chemicals that are used in products are considered “innocent until proven guilty;” they are assumed to be safe until it’s proven that they’re dangerous. But even when there is strong scientific evidence of the toxicity and harmfulness of certain substances, they are not always banned—or it can take many years of battles to get them banned. Known and suspected carcinogens and other harmful chemicals are in products that we all use every day. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is the country’s main chemical safety law, but it is weak and outdated; it desperately needs to be updated and strengthened, but some members of Congress are currently trying to weaken it further, putting the profit interests of the chemical industry over public health.
A few of the most toxic chemicals/elements, many of which are still commonly found in products, include: mercury, lead, arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde, PVC (polyvinyl chloride—dioxin is a by-product), phthalates (plasticizers), flame retardants (PBDEs, TDCP, TCEP), cadmium, chromium, hexane, PFCs, and trichlorethylene (TCE). And there are many other toxic chemicals and ingredients. See the Cradle to Cradle product certification’s Banned Lists of Chemicals.
Bear in mind that chemicals and pollutants that have negative effects on human health usually have (even more) negative effects on other species (pets, wildlife, fish, etc.) and on environmental health overall. Our air and water and soil are shared resources, and all living things depend on them for their survival and health. Some of the worst chemicals are classified as PBTs: Persistent, Bioaccumulative, and Toxic; these are toxic chemicals that are known to persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in people and/or wildlife (increasing in concentration as they go up the food chain).
EWG (Environmental Working Group)
Several other broad-based sustainability organizations—including Earthjustice, EDF, Greenpeace, and NRDC—also address health and toxics issues, among other issues.
Among the many types of toxins that people are exposed to on a regular basis, some of the worst sources include: power plant emissions, and other oil, coal, and gas industry inputs, by-products, and emissions (including fracking chemicals); nuclear radiation; pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides (including atrazine and Roundup/glyphosate); building materials, finishes, and furnishings; electronics (manufacturing and disposal hazards); and personal care products (e.g., shampoo, sunscreen, toothpaste, etc.).
These groups are working to reduce harmful exposures to chemicals from the following, specific sources:
Pesticides / food:
- Greenguard/UL: low chemical emissions certification
Electronics / tech:
- Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (Safe Cosmetics Action Network)
Books and Films
Living Downstream (book and film; book written by Sandra Steingraber)
No Family History (book and film; book written by Sabrina McCormick)
Other recent films on topics related to health, toxins, and the environment include: The Human Experiment, Unacceptable Levels, Toxic Hot Seat, The Atomic States of America, Hot Water, Blue Vinyl, and A Will for the Woods. You can find links to these and other films via the following posts:
Other health-related posts:
- How to Identify Greener Products: Certification Eco-Labels, Standards, Ratings
- How to Choose Less-Toxic, Low-VOC Paints and Coatings
- Flea and Tick Treatments that Won’t Poison Your Pet
- An Effective and Non-Toxic Solution for Getting Rid of Yellow Jackets’ Ground Nests
- Bed Bug Prevention and Non-Toxic Eradication
- Sustainable Food, Agriculture, Farming, and Gardening Resources
The rapid rise of the global fossil-fuel divestment movement is a very promising and heartening sign of real progress.
A growing number of people are trying to “put their money where their mouth is” (i.e., where their values are). They want to stop giving their unintentional financial support to destructive, polluting companies and industries, such as the fossil fuel industry, and to shift their support over to clean, forward-thinking companies and industries that aim to have a positive impact on our world.
Putting your money where your mouth is might involve more than just being selective about which stores you go to and which products you buy. You could be unwittingly giving some of your money to companies you don’t want to support through your accounts and investments: e.g., mutual funds, retirement accounts (IRAs, 401Ks), or any other stock-based accounts or investments. If you look at the list of company holdings that are part of your accounts’ portfolios, you might discover that Exxon and other oil/gas companies are in there, or Walmart, or Monsanto, or Koch Brothers-owned companies (also see the Buycott campaign/app), or McDonald’s or Coca-Cola or cigarette companies… Or there’s a good chance that your city, your college’s endowment fund, your church, or your government pension provider invests in companies that don’t align with your values. Institutions like these are increasingly being confronted by local and national divestment groups.
Fossil Free maintains this list of the hundreds of institutions (including colleges and universities, cities and counties, religious institutions, and foundations) that have committed to divesting from fossil fuels. They include: Rockefeller Brothers Fund; the City and County of San Francisco; Dane County, WI; Seattle, WA; Ann Arbor, MI, and many, many more. Countries committed to divest billions of dollars at the UN’s 2014 Climate Summit, and many world leaders have spoken out in support of the divestment movement; they include Desmond Tutu, Ban Ki-Moon, Christina Figueres, Mary Robinson, and even the President of the World Bank. People and institutions are divesting from fossil fuels for a variety of reasons. In addition to the values motivation, or to limit the influence of oil and gas companies, some are simply divesting because they feel that we’re approaching (or have already hit) “peak oil” and/or that fossil fuel reserves will become “stranded assets” and fossil fuel stocks will soon (and rapidly/drastically) drop in value.
At the Divest-Invest site, you can pledge to divest from fossil fuels or to invest in clean stocks, and learn more about the issues and options.
Whether or not you have any accounts that can be divested from fossil fuel or other harmful companies, you should think about investing some money in clean energy or other socially beneficial companies. If you want to either switch your mutual fund or retirement accounts over to—or start new accounts with—“socially responsible investment” (SRI) funds, there are many to choose from. Going this route does not necessarily mean that you have to settle for a lower return on investment. SRI funds often perform as well as (and sometimes even better) than the market average. (See some stats here.) And socially responsible investing has recently become much more popular: U.S-based SRI assets jumped 76% between 2012 and 2014 and reached $6.57 trillion, according to US SIF. You can learn more about fossil-free funds and other SRI funds at the following sites:
A few funds that are fossil-fuel free (to date) include: Green Century Fund (both of their funds: Equity and Balanced), Calvert Investments’ Green Bond Fund, FFIUS Fossil Free Indexes, FTSE ex Fossil Fuel Index, Portfolio 21 Global Equity Fund, Pax World Global Environmental Markets Fund, Parnassus Endeavor Fund, and Green Alpha Funds.
- Extracting Fossil Fuels from Your Portfolio: An Updated Guide to Personal Divestment and Reinvestment (published by 350.org, Green Century Fund, and Trillium Asset Management)
- Investing to Curb Climate Change: A Guide for the Individual Investor (published by US SIF)
Note: In addition to the relatively new fossil-fuel-free criterion, there are a number of other environmental and social issues and criteria that SRI funds can screen for, in areas such as: pollution/toxics, nuclear power, animal welfare, defense/weapons, human rights, tobacco, alcohol, executive pay, labor relations, diversity, and many others. (When you click on the link above, select the Screening and Advocacy tab to find out how/whether various funds address each issue.)
If you would like to have an investment advisor assist you in selecting a fossil-free or other SRI fund, these are a couple of advisory firms that I am aware of:
- Green Retirement Plans
- Trillium Asset Management (for “high net worth individuals, multi-generational families, and institutions”)
- See this list of investment advisors that are B Corporation-certified
(You can also do a web search to find firms or advisors who specialize in SRI or clean energy investment or fossil-fuel divestment and who are also based in your area.)
Another way to invest your money is to make a direct investment in a social impact venture, AKA a social enterprise. One place to find some social enterprises that anyone can invest in is CuttingEdgeX. For a list of some other funds that are available to everyone (with a focus on food and farming-related enterprises), also see the top section of this page.
Some people are also able to invest their money in local, distributed solar projects in their area or elsewhere (on housing, schools, etc.). These are two platforms that allow people to do that—though unfortunately, for now, most of these platform’s offerings are only open to California residents, due to current securities regulations (which could change in the future):
- Collective Sun (for non-profit projects)
(Note: Having solar panels or small-scale wind turbines installed on your own property is another good way to invest your money and get a solid return on investment.)
Most direct investments are only open to “accredited investors” (who, basically, are people wealthy enough to endure the risk of losing a considerable amount of money on investments; an accredited investor is currently defined as someone with an individual income of more than $200,000/year or a joint income of $300,000, for the past two years; or a net worth exceeding $1 million, individually or jointly with one’s spouse). If you are an accredited investor, there are all sorts of social enterprises you can invest in, through groups like these:
- Investors’ Circle
- RSF Social Finance
- Slow Money
- CircleUp’s B Corporation Circle
- Also see the bottom section of this page.
And there’s yet another way that everyone can make a difference with their dollars: move your regular (checking/savings) accounts out of the huge, greedy, bail-out banks (e.g., Bank of America, Citibank, Chase, Wells Fargo, etc.) and into a local credit union (credit unions are non-profit cooperative banks that share profits with their members) or a small community bank that won’t charge you ridiculous fees for basic transaction with your own money; won’t gamble with your money, your mortgage, and the economy for short-term gains; and that will give back to its members and your community. There are also a few banks that have a positive social and environmental mission (and are certified B Corporations), such as:
Efforts are also underway to create Clean Energy Victory Bonds, which would be treasury bonds where all the funds raised to support clean energy in the United States.
Other general resources for further information:
Some readers might wonder what I do when I’m not preparing posts for The Green Spotlight, as I almost never mention my (other) professional work in my blog posts. I am a sustainability writer, editor, and advisor, and I work on projects for a wide variety of clients.
This is a partial list of organizations and companies that I’ve worked with in recent years. For most of these clients, I have done writing, editing, and/or research (for printed materials or online content) related to some aspect of sustainability. Click on the links below to learn about the important and interesting work that these groups are doing.
- Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council
- Global Green USA
- Enterprise Community Partners (Green Communities program)
- U.S. Green Building Council, Northern California Chapter
- Partnership for Sustainable Communities
- Environmental Defense Fund
- David Brower Center
- New Leaf Community Markets
- Harmony Farm Supply & Nursery
- Industrial Economics
- Simon & Associates Green Building Consultants (now part of Thornton Tomasseti)
- Lehrer Design
Before I formed my own communications and consulting business, I worked for a public radio program (as a producer and reporter), a green building consulting firm (as senior associate), an architecture firm, and several environmental non-profits:
- Living on Earth public radio program
- Simon & Associates Green Building Consultants (now part of Thornton Tomasseti)
- Global Green USA
- Mostue & Associates Architects (now Davis Square Architects)
- Resource Renewal Institute
- ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability
I also used to regularly do freelance writing, and my pieces were published by the San Francisco Chronicle, Natural Home magazine (now Mother Earth Living), KQED.org, GreenHomeGuide.com, GreenBuildingAdvisor.com, and other media outlets. In addition, I authored a chapter of a book: Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing, edited by Global Green USA (Island Press, 2007).
For the past few years, my blog posts have been published on MotherEarthNews.com, as well as here on my own blog (The Green Spotlight). If you’d like more information about my writing, editing, and publications, please see Green Writing and Published Work or my Publications page.
It’s not always easy to tell which products are green, how green they might be, or in what ways they are green. There are no standard, universal definitions for the terms “green,” “environmentally friendly,” or “natural.” However, the FTC has recently created more stringent guidelines to prohibit marketers from making fraudulent environmental claims about their products.
Finding products that have achieved green certifications (from groups that have rigorous standards) can help you separate true green claims from “greenwashing.” So look for eco-labels from legitimate, third-party certifiers (as opposed to industry- or self-administered programs); several third-party certifiers are listed below.
Manufacturers that have had their environmental product claims independently assessed, verified, and certified by a third-party group can feature the corresponding eco-label on their certified products. Be aware that some certifications only verify specific single-attribute claims (e.g., energy efficiency, organic status, recycled-content percentage, indoor air quality/emissions, biodegradability), while others review multiple attributes related to a certain kind of product (e.g., forest products, paints, cleaning products, etc.). Green attributes can relate to the design, manufacturing, and/or operational (use) impacts of a product, or they can address the full lifecycle impacts of the product: from raw material extraction to end-of-life disposal/recycling/reuse.
Bear in mind, though, that many small companies can’t afford to put their products through a costly certification process, so there are some very-green products that do not have green certification labels. Therefore, it can also be helpful to look carefully at product ingredients and read up on the company’s claims and any outside analysis of those claims. But first, you should have a basic understanding of product stewardship and the criteria and attributes that might make a certain product greener than others of its kind.
Products’ green attributes tend to fall into these four general categories:
- Public / Environmental Health: pollution reduction during a product’s lifecycle (e.g., reduction of toxic inputs and by-products, and reduction of fossil fuel/energy use and greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing, etc.); protection of air, water, and soil quality and climate stability
- Individual / Household Health: minimized exposure to toxins/hazards for product users’ health and safety
- Resource Conservation: conservation of natural resources, including water, raw materials (e.g., trees, minerals), land/habitat, soil; reduction of resource extraction, resource use, and waste
- Social Responsibility: supports safe, responsible, and equitable labor practices, local economies, fair trade, human rights, humane treatment of animals, community vitality
[Note: I’ll be adding additional examples of specific product attributes within these categories soon.]
The following are some of the major certifiers of green product claims, as well as some other relevant standards, rating systems, and online assessment tools and resources:
General: Multiple-issue / multiple-attribute
- Green Seal
standards and certifications for numerous types of household and institutional products; see list below
- SCS Global Services
numerous types of certifications, including “Environmentally Preferable Product” lifecycle assessment; FSC; FloorScore; FairTrade; specific product claim certifications, e.g., recycled content, etc.
- Cradle to Cradle
comprehensive, multiple-attribute certifications
- UL Environment
ECOLOGO lifecycle certifications, as well as Greenguard chemical emissions certifications and single-attribute claim validations
- EPA Design for the Environment (DfE) Safer Product labeling program
Other general green product standards and ratings:
- GoodGuide product ratings (website and app)
- Consumers Union’s GreenerChoices.org tests and reports
- Energy Efficiency: ENERGY STAR
- Water Efficiency: WaterSense
- Chemical Emissions (offgassing): Greenguard
- Organic: USDA Organic
- Fair Trade: Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade International
- Animal Testing (Cruelty Free): Leaping Bunny (for cosmetics, personal care, and household products)
Industry- or Product-specific
- Forest Products (wood & paper) and Agricultural Products (including coffee) growing/harvesting practices: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifications, by Rainforest Alliance, or SCS Global Services
- Carpet and Rug Products: CRI Green Label Plus
- Green Seal (see logo above) also has certifications and standards for numerous types of products (e.g., household/cleaning products, hand soaps and cleaners, institutional cleaning products, personal care products, paints and coatings, printing and writing paper, windows, adhesives, paper towels and napkins and tissues, food packaging; cleaning services, hotels and lodging, and restaurants and food services, etc.)
- Flowers and Potted Plants: Veriflora “Sustainably Grown”
Other industry-specific standards, assessment tools, directories, and other resources:
- Building Materials: Pharos Project evaluation tool, and BEES lifecycle assessment software
- Electronics/Tech: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (electronics, including solar technologies) and the Sustainable Electronics Initiative
- Clothing/Apparel: Sustainable Apparel Coalition/Higg Index, and the Global Organic Textile Standard, and Greenpeace’s Detox fashion campaign
- EWG (Environmental Working Group) publishes various consumer product guides (on food, cosmetics, sunscreen, cleaning products, etc.)
- Seafood: Seafood Watch
- Flea and Tick Products (for pets): NRDC’s GreenPaws Product Directory
Also keep in mind that companies that are greener than others (e.g., companies that have greened their internal operations and have active green commitments) are more likely to make and use green products. So also look for products (and services) from companies that have been certified as green:
- Green Seal certified companies (restaurants, hotels, cleaning companies)
- High-Efficiency, WaterSense Plumbing Fixtures
- ENERGY STAR Products for Homes and Businesses
- Less-Toxic, Low-VOC Paints and Coatings
- Sustainable and Responsible (Organic, Fair Trade) Clothing
- Flea and Tick Treatments that Won’t Poison Your Pets
- Green Goods: Beneficial Products and Gifts
- Green Business, Corporate Social Responsibility
For additional information on green products, see:
- Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things [book], by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
- Greener Choices’ info on eco-labels and certifications
- Good Guide post on “Seals of Goodness”
- FTC green claims guidelines
- Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council (for institutional/governmental/organizational product procurement)
- Buycott app