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Tuesday, April 22 at 1 p.m. ET

How to Buy Green

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Jeanie Pyun
Sprig.com Editor
Tuesday, April 22, 2008; 1:00 PM

Sprig.com editor Jeanie Pyun was online Tuesday, April 22 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss green shopping, including how to tell if a product is green, why they're generally more expensive, the benefits of buy green products and why you should care.

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The transcript follows.

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Jeanie Pyun: Hi, Happy Earth Day! Jeanie from Sprig.com here to answer questions about green products, shopping, etc.

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Alexandria, Va.: Why is it difficult to advocate people buy and/or consume less?

Jeanie Pyun: Consuming more and consuming less come from two American traditions--the dream (consume more) and our Puritan roots (consume less). The American Dream--house, car, bling--is a more recent tradition, and it has staying power. Also, why is it hard to eat healthfully and mindfully these days--there is so much convenient food around and we're very busy people. But encouraging people to use what they need, no more, to be careful about waste and buy quality builds character!

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New York, N.Y.: I would love to buy green clothes, but I find that they're so expensive. Why is that? Are there any good designers that sell pretty, earth-friendly fashion for cheap (or cheaper than $200 for an Edun top)?

Jeanie Pyun: Sure, there are tons. H&M has an organic cotton line, JC Penney has sustainable items, even Forever 21 has some pieces from time to time that are super cheap, super cute and made from vintage fabrics. Also, every time you get something for cheap at a thrift store or eBay or flea market, you are buying green, don't forget.

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New York, N.Y.: It seems as though buying eco and organic clothing and household items are pretty pricey - do you have any tips or recommendations for less expensive options?

Jeanie Pyun: Hi, well, I mentioned some less expensive fashion possibilities, but in home, there's JC Penney, anything reused, Target, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Wal-Mart and Container Store and Home Depot have organic, recycled and green items. Are you looking for anything specific?

Also, I'm not sure I thoroughly answered the first question. The reason why organic and green items are more expensive is that at this point, they are a little off the beaten path in terms of what's the standard in industrial infrastructure, and going organic or green takes time, energy, work and money. Farmers need to allow their land to not be in contact with any chemical fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides and genetically modified anything for three years--that's an adjustment. Also, green designers in both fashion and home tend to be more thoughtful about their production processes--for example, not use sweatshop labor--as being socially conscious and environmentally conscious often goes hand-in-hand. But here's the benefit: Organic foods are more nutritious and contain up to 60% more antioxidants, and organic cotton clothing tends to last longer--the fiber isn't as harshly processed and isn't chemically treated, so they're less stressed. Some say they're softer, too!

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Jeanie. Who sets the standards for what is "green" - is there some sort of label I should be looking for? Is this regulated? Thank you!

Jeanie Pyun: Hi! Green isn't a standard, actually--it's an adjective for anything and everything that is environmentally conscious in some way. Energy Star and WaterSense are standards certified by the Environmental Protection Agency for energy- and water-efficient appliances, electronics and fixtures. Certified Organic is also a real standard--a food or beauty product can't have this label on the front of its package without containing 95% or more organic ingredients. Forest Stewardship Council- or FSC-certified, for products containing wood that were responsibly harvested (not just rampaging through the forests!) is a real, independent, third-party certification. So some of these labels are real. Labels like "Natural," however, are not.

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Washington, D.C.: Does buying green cleaning products really matter? Any advice on where to find more cost-conscious green cleaning products?

Jeanie Pyun: Hi! Yes, definitely, buying green cleaning products matters. If you have allergies, if you have young children whose brains and neurological systems are still developing, if you are worried about asthma, then stay away from regular cleaning products that contain toxic chemicals like bleach (chlorine gas wasn't a war weapon for nothing), formaldehyde and other nasties. Most green cleaners also don't contain petroleum derivatives--if you want another way to not support oil. On an environmental level, green cleaners made of biodegradable plant-based ingredients (as many of them are) are kinder on aquatic life and break down quickly. Plus, they clean just as well as smell delicious (especially the aromatherapeutic essential oils in lines like Mrs. Meyer)! You can get green cleaners in any Whole Foods, Targets, health food stores, and even big chains are now carrying them. They can be a little more expensive--Seventh Generation and Ecover are my favorites--but they're worth it, health-wise and environment-wise. There are also all different levels of green--for example, Palmolive has an eco dishwashing detergent that is phosphate-free, and it's not that expensive, and is definitely step in the right direction.

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Brooklyn, New York: Hi there. I'm wondering what you would say is the single most important change one can make in their lives to go green... And then I'd love to know what you would suggest the most fun thing a person can do that is also in the vein of going green.

Jeanie Pyun: Among the single most effective thing you can do is not drive, if possible. Even if you don't drive one day out of the week and carpool with colleagues or friends, you are saving up to 4000 pounds of global-warming gases from going into the atmosphere. The most fun thing you can do is eat! Eat local, seasonal, organic if you can, and less meat, perhaps for one meal out of the week. There are racier suggestions I could make, but this is a family newspaper.

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Springfield, Va.: At what point do you believe that the federal government should transfer subsidies and incentives from the oil, gas and coal industries to green and renewable energy industries? Closer to home, since Republicans believe in lesser government, shouldn't prominent Republicans lead by example by implementing forward looking and environmentally friendly actions by implementing "green" solutions and renewable energy solutions into their own homes? Have you adopted any green solutions in your own home? How close are you to having a zero-energy home?

Jeanie Pyun: Well, I'm a greenie, and not an economic expert, so of course I would say: Now (transfer subsidies and incentives from traditional fuel industries to green ones) and yes (Republicans should lead by example in implementing green solutions in their own homes). Predictable, and I'll admit, I can't tell you the ramifications of the former--perhaps it's would be painful, perhaps a really smart person would help make it less so. Myself, I am an obsessive recycler, I repair things instead of throwing them away whenever I can, I try and use re-usables (batteries, totes, dry cleaning bag, second-hand furniture, etc.) whenever I can, I buy green cleaners, I use recycled paper products, I am a big power stripper--75% of the energy that our electronics use is expended after they're turned off--and I buy green energy. But I also live in a small apartment--which means I have a small footprint (don't drive, use public transport) and, unfortunately, that I don't have a ton of control over, say, the boiler the building uses.

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Alexandria, Va.: Many products are claiming to be green. How can a shopper tell who is legitimately helping the environment?

Jeanie Pyun: Look for labels--USDA organic, certified organic, made of 100% recycled post consumer paper, FSC-certified wood, certified animal-friendly (jumping bunny) and look on the label and look at the ingredients or the care label. If you're particularly industrious, check out the company online. Most have a How We're Green section in their About Us, or have a corporate sustainability section. If you're satisfied, if you don't come across any telltale red flags (like someone using the word "organic" to describe a design style or aesthetic--which just means it's looks natural and curvy) you should be good. In this day and age, most companies are held so accountable by bloggers and the web, they would be foolish to consciously try and slip one past you. Of course, mistakes happen all the time--misshelving and such, but we can always complain!

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New York, N.Y.: What is your best advice for trying to get my friends to be green? I keep telling them about all of these easy options but it seems to slip in one ear and out the other.

Jeanie Pyun: It's probably better to walk the walk and inspire by example than talk the talk. Be healthy, look fabulous, have fun--there are lots and lots of green options that result in these pretty unarguably good things. And when you get complimented, you can always slip in: "It's vegan!" or recycled or organic....That's sort of our m.o. at sprig.com (sorry for the plug ;-)--we'd rather the products and ideas we cover be good ANYWAY, like you don't necessarily have to be eco to appreciate them, and the green element is the cherry on top.

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Troy, Mich.: Hi Jeanie. What about shampoo/conditioner, body lotion, cleansers, etc. and other personal care items? They are so difficult to find, and quite pricey... does it make enough of a difference to warrant the search and expense?

Jeanie Pyun: Hi! I think it does. There are studies that show that up 60% of what you put on your skin gets absorbed (that's how nicotine patches work, after all) and do you really want to be taking in plastic softeners associated with a range of hormonal troubles (phthalates) or chemical preservatives with links to cancer (parabens) on daily basis? Probably not. The thing is, nobody really knows exactly what the tipping point of the chemicals we carry around in our bodies is, but we do know there are links to a host of ills. Especially for babies and kids. Babies have thinner, more permeable skin, and their brains are especially sensitive. So if you're not necessarily seeing yourself buy nontoxic beauty products for yourself, consider it for the babies in your life. Also, any health food store should have these products as well as online retailers. This may be too drastic, but washing your hair less often is something my stylist is always trying to get me to do--says my hair will look glossier, hmmm--and that means less of the pricier products are getting used (and less water usage--hey! a win all around).

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Jeanie. My parents think I'm crazy when I try to persuade them to buy green. (To a certain extent, I think that there's a generational gap when it comes to the rising environmental consciousness in this country.) Any advice regarding winning them over with solid, actionable tips that appeal to their fiscal conservatism? Appeals of civic virtue leave them unmoved.

Jeanie Pyun: Hi, I don't know how old your parents are, but their parents are probably pretty unwittingly green. They're probably pretty careful about waste and excess and make sure not to throw away anything that might be of value. Maybe it's a reaction to that? You can always argue MONEY and CONVENIENCE. Who doesn't want to save money these days? And doing things like switching out your regular bulbs for compact fluorescent ones (the spiral ones--except they also come in the regular globe variety these days fyi, at most hardware stores) will save you 75% of the electricity you would normally use to power those lights. Plus, I've been using mine for almost six years, and my lazy butt hasn't had to step on a step stool to change out one yet. Switching to a low-flow showerhead saves you 30% or more in water (and the energy to heat that water for the hot showers we all love). And plugging leaks in windows and doors with weather stripping saves you 10% in energy costs. Doing things like booking direct flights saves you time, stress, and the tons of carbon gases that the plane would have normally emitted during landing and takeoffs.

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Arlington, Va.: One thing that I do is wash and re-use plastic zip-lock bags. I know I shouldn't buy them at all, but at least I feel better about re-using them as many times as I can. And I don't put them in the kids' lunches, because I know they would end up in the trash every time. (Actually, I put them in lunches when they are about worn out anyway.) Every little bit helps!

Jeanie Pyun: Hi, I would caution against using plastic bags over and over. Might be better to use reusable sandwich holders and such. The thing is about those plastic bags--they weren't made to be reused, I'm sorry to say. And every time you scratch them in the washing and using, you are opening up opportunities for unwanted toxic plastic chemicals to leach into your food--particularly if you microwave them in the sandwich bags! On that note, would also advise not using plastic storage containers, particularly old, scratched ones, in the microwaves. Will kinda undo all the good that you put into the whole-grain, healthy veggie-laden foods that you're making! ;-)

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Glass bottles and jars: I reuse glass jars, but find that many items are now in plastic (cheaper to produce and transport? less chance of breakage?) Why do we get EU made jam in glass but US made jam in plastic (and don't start me on HFCS vs sugar...)?

Jeanie Pyun: Hi, glass vs. plastic. Well, glass is just better, all around, and Europe is definitely ahead of us in terms of the health and environmental implications of a disposable life. For example, the Swedish banned PCBEs (the stuff they put on the foam in furniture and flame-retardent items) generations ago because of its long-lasting toxicity (we still use and sell it!) and it's still showing up in breast milk, several generations later. The EU have banned many ingredients in beauty products that we use. But congratulations on reusing glass jars--that's really great!

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Philadelphia, Pa.: When people talk about sustainable fashion, I just think of clothes. Is there any way to make jewelry sustainable?

Jeanie Pyun: Hi, sure. Buying vintage jewelry is the best. Gold and silver mining are among the most toxic of industries. There are jewelry companies that are certified, some like Tiffany's don't advertise that they mine in conscientious Canada, but it's best to re-use what already exists. Look for deisgners who use reycled metals--apparently there's enough unworn gold and silver jewelry out there that can be recycled to meet US jewelry demand for the next 50 years without mining a bit. I'm a little hard on my things--maybe that's why I'm always repairing stuff--and I have an inexpensive jeweler downtown in Chinatown remake single earrings (I lose them all the time) into necklace pendants and the like. It's kinda fun and creative and it means a piece of jewelry is being used that wouldn't otherwise.

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Jeanie Pyun: Hi, this was really great--loved your questions. Hope you have a fabulous and happy rest of your Earth Day! Maybe get out and take a walk and enjoy the weather (if it's nice where you are) and outdoors. That's why we're doing anything green at all, right? All best, Sprig.com

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washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us for the Sprig "Buying Green" discussion! Green Week continues now with a discussion hosted by presidential candidate John McCain's environmental policy adviser. Join that conversation here.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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