What Does “Green” Really Mean to You? Getting Environmental Health versus Sustainability Sorted Out

A still from the "Sad Kermit" video

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not easy being “green.” In fact, much of the time it’s not even clear what it means.

What we typically label “green-washing,” or the marketing of eco-high points without mention of the ecological costs, is a real problem. One aspect of this problem is that it’s often difficult to tell, when you are choosing a product, whether it’s “green” because it’s safer or healthier to consume, or because less junk was produced or used in getting it to you in the first place.

For a concrete example of this, I constantly see items marketed as “green” – say, the furniture from West Elm made with some percentage of soy foam – that nonetheless is full of toxic chemicals, such as the flame retardants I’ve been blogging about somewhat obsessively. It’s also not helpful that words like “natural,” “non-toxic,” or even “organic” outside the context of food, have very little meaning.

And then there’s the debate in the comments of that recent post on the Sofa Saga, in which an eco-textiles expert takes issue, rightly in many ways, with the green claims being made about some of the furniture. Her concern is for sustainability and to reduce overall pollution of the environment from textiles, as far as I can tell. Yet I began my sofa quest from the simpler place of merely trying to get toxics out of my house (a task which turned out not to be at all simple, sadly).

So there’s a definitional problem that flows both ways. But this is not an unimportant distinction. If we want consumers to care about the impact of their choices on either their own health or the environment, we could start by clarifying our terms.

While sometimes the benefits might be related, the motivations in these two areas are not the same, from a practical or psychological perspective. My desire to protect my child from toxics, at least for me, comes from a place where I’m basically kinda’ offended that some company wants to poison her. I just want to get that possibility to zero, and I’ll do a lot to make that happen.  (Including ordering healthier products shipped in individual boxes to my house, carbon miles, packaging and all. No one talks about these trade-offs!)

On the other hand, while I do feel deeply committed to whatever I can do to improve the health of the planet, on that scale, I’m also part of systems that do a lot of harm all the time, including everything from the electricity production that lights my house using coal-fired power plants, to, more directly, when I put gas in my car. Motivating real and significant change on these behaviors is far harder, in many cases anyway, and is more about my sense of wanting to do right by the earth than the highly personal health concerns that affect my direct actions in the first category.

Of course, the planet does provide a handy feedback loop, in that the stuff we use ends up in the environment eventually. But I would submit that this kind of secondary effect is merely a nice outcome – the icing on my organic cake – for choosing healthier products. It is a weak force when compared to the incentive provided by health or safety issues that far more directly impact what’s in my family’s life.

In either case, eco-products mostly come at a premium, and “greener” items tend to be green in a number of ways, all of which raise the price. If I’m paying more for better health for my family, I’d like to know that. Similarly, if I’m paying more as an investment in a cleaner environment for all of us, including my family, I’d like to know that too. Having a transparent range of options and a sense of their impact would make a big difference.

Because these triggers for change are so different, and imply very different behaviors and tolerance of costs, in my view, the consistent confusion in messages we receive on what “green” means –  i.e.,, whether it should be judged on grounds of environmental health or environmental sustainability, or a mix of both – actually demotivates change by potentially willing consumers, and obfuscates choices on price and other trade-offs.

It also creates a space where consumers are told they are helping to solve a problem by going “green” in shopping for an item with some improvement in features, without the full set of possible choices on either health or environmental grounds – choices the company has made – being clear.

Questions like – How green (or non-toxic) is it? In what ways? And how green (or non-toxic) could it be? – are rarely answered with any honesty. (For some recent evidence on this, see organic tomato company Muir Glen’s weasel-y response on Facebook, banished from their front page, when I asked about the new BPA-free materials in their can linings.)

When we later learn what was missing from the full picture, it can create cynicism, and the sense that, whatever we’re told, it’s not enough to make a truly informed decision. With so many choices to make in a day, and so little time to make them, most folks just make a call and move on. What else could they do, really?

The result is that the motivators on health are lumped in with vaguer concerns, and toxics continue being distributed, even through “eco” products. Savvy consumers have to become even savvier label-scanners, and the few hyper-researched worrywarts like me who do weed out stuff on health grounds, as we can, must peer through a thick haze of greenish claims to figure out what’s likely to be toxic or not, and better for the planet or not.

At a minimum, this is deeply annoying. But at worst, we’re blowing a chance to bring matters home that could be much more of a driver for consumer decisions. We could start to address this by putting companies – especially ones making claims to do better – through a much more exacting set of questions about what’s in stuff and why.

So, please join me in my persnickety questions and letters, and let me know what you find out. And what you can’t seem to get a straight answer about, even when you ask a highly specific question. I’ll post it all – the pursuit, the brush-offs and obfuscations, and the thrill of the chase. Or at least the exchange of impertinent questions and dodges.

If we could start holding companies far more accountable for their bogus “green” claims, and sorting out the ones who are willing to be accountable from those that clearly don’t want to be on health matters, that would be a decent start on addressing a few aspects of this problem. “Green” claims, at a minimum, should not shield companies from closer inquiries on the safety of their contents. (And if you’d prefer to work the reverse angle — figuring out sustainability issues for companies making health claims, that would be interesting too.)

Even if nothing else, please help me get real answers from Muir Glen, before they get away with covering over the information we deserve on BPA substitutes with a gloppy dollop of organic tomato sauce.

Tomato Twins

Tomato Twins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Waiting for Supermom: The FDA’s Failure on BPA

Credit: Darren Higgins

Cross-posted from the Natural Resources Defense Council blog, On Earth, 4/18/2012.

When the New York Times ran a snarky story under a picture of my daughter, Maya, a few weeks ago describing my efforts to rid my home of toxic chemicals, you can bet the comments from readers were merciless. Readers accused me of trying to keep my child in a bubble and mocked me as yet another privileged, neurotic helicopter mom.

Truth be told, instead of a posh housewife, for years I was a cash-strapped public interest lawyer who roamed the halls of Congress with brokenhearted families after some federal agency had failed to protect them. I worked on the Ford-Firestone rollover tragedy and the discovery of lead in children’s toys from China, among other disasters for public health. So when I had my own child, it seemed important to think through the risks to her health for myself.

Still, the pointed comments got me thinking: are moms, and parents generally, bad or good at predicting risks to children? I’ve decided that while parents might not be perfect, we’re a good sight better than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Contrary to stereotype, moms (and dads) are actually expert risk assessors. In fact, it’s no overstatement to say that risk assessment is a major part of the job. Parents constantly measure both the benefits and risks to their child, of say, crossing the street, eating that suspect ball-park hot dog, going to summer camp, or even, as at my house, playing on our splinter-filled back deck (allowed, but shoes required).

On the other hand, we have the FDA. Eleven states, and at least eight countries, including Canada, China, and the European Union, have already banned Bisphenol-A — a dangerous chemical added to plastic food containers and can linings — in some or all products. Hoping to head off more comprehensive rules, the chemical industry in the U.S. even asked regulators last September for a ban on BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups.

Nonetheless, the FDA recently decided to keep exposing all of us to BPA, which shows up in the urine of 93 percent of Americans. This was a big step backward from the agency’s public position in 2010, which said that BPA was of “some concern” with regard to health impacts like early puberty and prostate cancer. That statement was based on a 2008 report from the National Toxicology Program, which concluded that there is “some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures to bisphenol A.”

Four long years later (a period which included the birth of my daughter in 2010), the FDA’s disappointing decision to punt left in its wake a dizzying array of contradictory messages for the public on the safety of BPA. While FDA said that its recent decision was not a final determination and that it would continue to study the issue, the chemical industry’s flacks said the decision meant that BPA “is safe for use in food-contact materials.”

The Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, states that “[i]t is clear that the government… need[s] more research to better understand the potential human health effects of exposure to BPA, especially when it comes to the impact of BPA exposure on young children.” HHS also provides recommendations to parents about “minimizing BPA exposure,” including helpful information on BPA levels in various types of containers for infant formula and the advantages of breastfeeding. This is in marked contrast to the cursory, lame non-guidance from the FDA, which states “FDA is not recommending that families change the use of infant formula or foods.”

Really? No changes? It’s shocking that in the face of health concerns that even the government has acknowledged, FDA won’t provide a shred of guidance for pregnant women and parents about how to minimize exposure for their baby. How about the obvious: families should avoid baby bottles with BPA in them, ready-to-use formulas and baby foods with BPA in the lining of lids, and canned foods with a BPA lining. Or that pregnant women, like the one working the cash register at my local café last week, should avoid handling receipts and money, which have been shown to be covered in unbound BPA?

In the face of such indifference to the risks, I’ll just point out the clear superiority of parents as deciders. In fact, parents generally make balanced — and protective — choices, weighing both benefits and risks. Kids can’t and shouldn’t live in a bubble, sure, so parents do the best they can with the information that they have. But when they think about the downsides, they also make a very precise accounting, a moral and ethical accounting, you might say, that reflects the place in their heart occupied by their own child.

Parents everywhere take note: this kind of protective approach should also be the yardstick used by government when it assesses the risks to its citizens. When I worked on the Ford-Firestone rollover disaster, accompanying the mother of a dead 18-year-old boy to her senator’s office to argue for more protective auto safety rules, what she expressed most poignantly, besides the devastating impact of her loss, was her profound, tragic heartbreak that she “didn’t know” about this risk — that she “didn’t know” that the government would allow things to be sold that were unsafe — that she assumed, in fact, that government would view the life and health of her child in the same loving, protective way she did.

If only it were so. When the FDA and White House play politics with our health and lives, when regulators admit a chemical in our food supply is unsafe yet refuse to even offer adequate guidelines for parents to protect their babies and children, and when a potential threat to our health is so impossible to avoid, we need a new, and far better, ethic for assessing risks and the safety of families.

We should enact laws that require products to be proven to be safe before our children and families can be exposed. And in the case of FDA, we shouldn’t tolerate these ridiculous waiting games. The agency should meet its legal obligation to protect the public from chemicals that can reach our food supply and have not been proven to be safe. That would be a government that only a mother could love.