Put your money where your future is

"Sustaining the Earth: Choosing Products that are Safe for You, Your Family, and the Earth"

by Carolyn Chase
n the past few years, "preserving the environment" has begun to be translated into business and consumer products. But with so many new "green" items on the market and numerous buzzwords used to describe them, how can you get past the jargon and make the right choices? In Sustaining the Earth: Choosing Products that are Safe for You, Your Family, and the Earth, author Debra Dadd-Redalia provides the information needed to assess environmental pros and cons of everyday products, from food to cleaning products and more.
Ms. Dadd-Redalia delves deeper than just listing environmentally safe products. This book is a tool that consumers can use to evaluate products now and in the future. She seeks to empower consumers with the knowledge necessary to distinguish products with true environmental benefits from those that are misleading or nothing more than green hype:
"In my work as a consumer advocate, one of the things that has troubled me over the last few years is that while many companies have been claiming their products are 'good for the earth,' there has been little definition of what exactly 'good for the earth' means."
Ms. Dadd-Redalia presents a new yardstick for choosing the products you use on a day-to-day basis: sustainability. This means acting in such a way that life on earth endures, providing for the needs of all while maintaining the natural functions, resources, and beauty of the planet:
"Without a sustainable base of resources from which we and future generations can continuously draw, we cannot survive. Everything we have, indeed our very lives, begin and end with the earth. There is no greater priority that to sustain that which sustains us.
"All product choices have trade-offs. The most important thing is that we begin to move in the direction of environmental sustainability and support those products that have made real environmental improvements to move the marketplace in that direction. Just take this a product at a time, and soon looking at the environmental attributes will become second nature."
Sustaining the Earth teaches you how to make choices that result in real environmental and social benefits without deprivation; how to move past hype and really make a difference.
As a practical matter, the book contains useful answers to environmental questions. How do you compare "energy efficient" and "energy saving?" Which is better, "organic" or "organically grown?" What do "CFC Free," "ozone friendly" and "ozone safe" mean? What are trade-offs between reduced, reusable, refillable, recycled and recyclable? What about biodegradable, degradable, photo degradable, compostable? And my favorite: Dadd-Redalia answers, in gory detail, that shopping question for the 90s, paper or plastic?
Part One provides an introduction to all the environmental concepts and the status of green product evaluation and labeling. Part Two is a product glossary from "air-conditioners" to "yogurt." Each product category summarizes the issues and makes brand name suggestions where appropriate. Up-arrows indicate products described as moving toward sustainability; down-arrows mark particular products that are exceptionally unsustainable. One example of such a "downer" is charcoal lighter fluid and briquettes. They are made from toxic petroleum distillates, and when used produce air pollutants that create smog. Alternatives now exist, such as Barbecubes Natural Fruitwood Briquettes made from prunings that were previously burned in the fields. The prunings are now collected and processed in such a way so as to improve the environmental equation for backyard barbecues.
I found Sustaining the Earth to be an exciting and practical guide - so much so that I have six sticky-tabs inserted so that I can find my favorite sections. Of prime importance is the need to use our power as consumers. This book show you how do that in order to promote an ever-increasing movement towards sustainability. According to Dadd-Redalia, "Instead of just looking for reasons to reject products, look for reasons they are better. The nature of our free-market system is to respond to consumer demand - let's lead the market in the direction we want it to go."
If you take this book to heart you can both feel better and do better. (ISBN: 0-688-12335-X published by William Morrow & Company $15)


Here are Debra Dadd-Redalia's ten questions you can use while shopping to help you make a choice about a product based on the information available on the label:
  1. Do I really need the product? I always ask myself this first, because every product I don't buy saves resources and eliminates waste. When appropriate and possible, I buy a secondhand product over a new one (such as antique furniture or used books).
  2. Is the product safe to use? Being health conscious and aware of the dangers of toxins in products is vital. Because there are so many nontoxic alternatives available, this is one area in which I personally will not make a compromise, unless there is absolutely no other choice.
  3. Is the product practical, durable, well made, of good quality, with a timeless design? Considering the environmental cost to make every product, I want a product to last. So I avoid the latest trendy fashions or designs and cheap imitations and buy better-quality goods.
  4. Is the product made from renewable or recycled materials taken in a sustainable way? Are the ingredients/materials listed? What are the ingredients/materials used that are not listed? Any warning labels or environmental claims? Are the product's raw materials renewable (plant, animal, earth) or nonrenewable (metals and petrochemicals)? Look for recycled content.
  5. Is there any information about the manufacturing practices that tells the environmental improvements?
  6. How will I dispose of the product, and what environmental impact will that have? I look for products that are biodegradable, and if I can't put it in my compost pile or let it safely run down the drain, I want it to be recyclable in the area where I live.
  7. What kind of package does the product have? I prefer products that can be purchased in bulk or that have no packaging. Try to avoid plastic packaging.
  8. How far has the product been shipped to reach the retail outlet? I try to find products that are made as close to my home as possible. Given the choice between two products with equal environmental merit, I'll choose the locally made one to cut down on resource use and pollution from transportation, and to support my local economy.
  9. Is the product a good value for the money? While I believe that the protection of the environment is worth any price, there are some products that are a waste of money, or don't warrant the added cost.
  10. Is there some environmental, health, personal, or economic benefit that outweighs the product's environmental cost? This is really the final question, because there may be other factors, such as necessity and economics, that justify a compromise.

Carolyn Chase is Executive Director of San Diego Earth Day , Chairperson of the City of San Diego Waste Management Advisory Board, and recipient of the 1994 Spirit of San Diego award.