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Today most people are aware that human activity can have an adverse impact on the environment and are interested in what steps can be taken to mitigate our impact. We all can contribute to a healthier environment with our everyday selection of products. But it can be daunting to determine exactly what constitutes an eco-friendly product. While there is no single “eco-friendly” standard to guide us in our purchases, there are several established and emerging standards that provide good guidance. A few of the leading standards are described below.
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a rating system maintained by the US Green Building Council (or USGBC, in case you’re counting acronyms). LEED benchmarks provide a rating scale for the design, construction, and operation of commercial and residential building based on their eco-friendliness. The LEED standards focus on five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality. LEED standards overlap with some of the standards below – the LEED rating system awards credits for materials complying with the FSC and Green Seal standards. The goal of the LEED system is to promote and recognize commitment to environmental sustainability in the building industry. Projects are awarded grades of Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum depending on how well the buildings meet the LEED criteria. If you are building a new home or office, or undertaking extensive renovations on an existing building, you will find the LEED website to be a great source of information.
The FSC (The Forest Stewardship Council) is an international organization that defines standards for responsible use of forestry products and provides guidance on what constitutes a well-managed, sustainable forest. Look for the “FSC-certified” logo on forest-derived products ranging from lumber (as used for construction, flooring, furniture, etc.) to paper. When we consider that 25% of trees cut in the United States are used for paper production alone, we understand better the importance or recycling paper and, when possible, choosing paper products sustainably produced.
Green Seal is an independent, non-profit organization that maintains general environmental standards. Their mission is “to achieve a more sustainable world by promoting environmentally responsible production, purchasing, and products.” Green Seal certifies a wide range of products, including home cleaning products, personal care products, carpeting, paints, windows, and doors. The Green Seal logo indicates that a product is likely more eco-friendly than products without the logo.
The GREENGUARD Environmental Institute is another independent, non-profit organization. It focuses on improving the quality of indoor air. Most of us now spend more than 90% of our time indoors and are exposed to many pollutants inside our homes and offices. Recent rises in asthma and allergies have promoted indoor air quality to a major health concern. Two important criteria for GREENGUARD certification are that products be low-emitting in gases (i.e., volatile organic compounds or VOCs, including formaldehyde) and microbial resistant. GREENGUARD certification encompasses products including bedding, air filters, paints and sealants, floor finishes, furniture, and textiles. Anyone with respiratory sensitivities should consult the GREENGUARD website for information on how common household products can contribute to (or alleviate) respiratory ailments.
ENERGYSTAR is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy that promotes energy efficient products and practices. When shopping for electronic products (including household appliances, heating/cooling systems, home electronics, computers, and lighting products), look for the ENERGYSTAR logo to ensure that you make an energy-efficient choice. In addition to reducing the environmental impact of energy usage, ENERGYSTAR devices save us money over time by lowering our electric bills.
WaterSense is a partnership program sponsored by the EPA that seeks to protect our water supply by promoting water-efficient products including toilets, sinks, showerheads, and lawn irrigation systems. We can help use water more responsibly by choosing plumbing fixtures that minimize water waste.
Use of the term “Organic” for food products has been regulated by the government since 2002. The US Department of Agriculture maintains standards for organic food products, whether domestic of imported. Producers of food-goods with the USDA Organic label must be inspected by a government-approved certifier. For produce to be considered “organic” by the USDA, it must come from farms emphasizing “the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations” and be grown without the use of most conventional pesticides. Organic meat, egg, and dairy products come from animals raised without antibiotics or growth hormones.
The Organic Trade Association is a member-based organization for the organic industry in North America. It comprises more than 1600 businesses including growers, processors, shippers, and retailers working in the food and textile industries. It is a great source of information regarding organic cotton. While cotton comprises only 3% of our cropland, it accounts for 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of insecticides used in agricultural production. People with skin sensitivities may consider purchasing organic clothing and bed and bath linens.
For more information on these standards, please see the following websites:
LEED - www.usgbc.org
FSC – www.fscus.org
Green Seal - www.greenseal.org
GREENGUARD - www.greenguard.org
ENERGYSTAR - www.energystar.gov
WaterSense - www.epa.gov/watersense
USDA Organic - www.ams.usda.gov/nop
Organic Trade Association - www.ota.com