Buying "green" in the rural West


I recently took a little unscientific field trip to a Walmart Supercenter near my home in Mesa, Arizona. I chose Walmart partly because of its prices but also because it is widely available in rural areas in the West, where shopping choices are often limited. My "research" questions: Would the prices for 'greener' products be lower than the grocery store where I had bought my dish soap? Would there be more choices?

The answer to these questions was yes. The prices were slightly lower (a few cents for the Seventh Generation dish soap) for laundry detergent, all-purpose surface cleaner, and dish soap. The store had a small dedicated "green" section ("Good for your family and good for the EARTH") containing Seventh Generation and Mrs. Meyer's products, as well as 'greener' versions of some mainstream brands like Clorox and Arm & Hammer mixed in with the regular products.

Photo courtesy Flickr user KOMUNews.

Therein was the problem - all the choices! I could save a few cents on a "greener" product, if that was what I sought. However, I could also choose from a wide range of far less expensive products. For example, 100 ounces of Walmart "Great Value" house brand laundry detergent cost $8.00; the equivalent amount of Seventh Generation cost $13.97. When money's tight, even the most motivated environmentalist will struggle with a gap of almost $6.00 for this cleaning staple.

I had been spurred to my trip by an Arizona Republic headline earlier this week that proclaimed, "Report: 95% of 'green' products not green."  Well that's a drag, I thought. After reading the article (reprinted from USA Today), I went into the kitchen to scrutinize my half-empty bottle of Seventh Generation Natural Dish Liquid. I like to think of myself as a fairly savvy consumer, both in terms of marketing claims and prices. Like many, I've been trying to be more conscious of the environmental consequences of my buying habits, and, as my budget allows, trying to select products that seem to make reasonably credible "green" claims: recycled content, perhaps, or non-volatile chemical ingredients. The Seventh Generation dish soap label goes to some pains to explain ingredients (for example: "1,3-propanediol (plant- derived foam stabilizer")), which seemed good enough for me, not being a chemist or having unlimited time to stand around in grocery aisles reading labels.

So despite my caution, had I been taken in by "greenwash"? Was I wasting my money on products that weren't actually better for the earth? Maybe. I downloaded and read the report featured in the article.  The company that prepared the report, Terrachoice, is affiliated with Underwriter's Laboratories, which lends some plausibility to an otherwise suspiciously hyperbolic sounding document. Their criteria for judging home products' claims appear sensible; they examine whether a claim is vague, irrelevant, or incorrect, as well as whether proof is offered or appropriate certification received. Not surprisingly, the study reveals widespread greenwashing practices, though slightly fewer than in previous years.  In the section on "household cleaning products" (the report also looks at toys, building products, and electronics), the conclusions are a mixed bag. Few (3.73 percent) products are free of greenwashing entirely, but a decent number of products have been certified by a legitimate, ISO 14024 compliant testing organization such as EcoLogo or Rainforest Alliance. My dish soap does not appear to have any certification, at least according to the label. Despite the explanatory ingredient list, it does include a bit of vague terminology, including "natural." Lots of nasty stuff is natural. Hmm.

What to do? The report makes the following comforting recommendation:

"Support 'green' products whenever you can, even if you suspect greenwashing. Since most greenwashing is exaggeration rather than falsehood, you're probably choosing a 'greener' product ...[a]nd every time you choose a 'greener' product, the market hears you say: 'I like this. I want more green products. Please keep trying.'"

I suppose this makes me feel better about the soap, but there's another problem: cost. Even though they're more widely available and the price has come down in the last several years, "greener" soaps and detergents are hardly economical. If middle-income folks like me must think twice before reaching for the Seventh Generation, what about the poor and those on fixed incomes? The report suggests a silver lining in that regard: "we find that consumers can trust big box stores to provide the best selection and integrity of 'greener' product claims." This may be true, but the difference between "green" and conventional cleaning products, even when purchased at a big box store, still involves spending a lot of another type of green.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University, where she is also the Associate Director of Writing Programs. Outside academia, she’s an avid rafter, kayaker, and horsewoman who also attempts to garden. When possible, she escapes the Phoenix metro area for an undisclosed location in Southeastern Utah.