Back in October, my family took off for the weekend to Victoria, a two-hour trip from Vancouver that involves a ferry boat. We chose our hotel because we found a Groupon, it looked nice and it came with a kitchenette, which is huge when you’re traveling with kids. It also claimed to be a “sustainable resort hotel”, and it’s currently targeting LEED certification. While I didn’t choose the hotel for that reason, I’ll admit that knowing it was built with an eye to reducing environmental impact made me feel good. A big sign on the side of the building advertised its green street cred:
All of the hotel’s claims about water and energy conservation, recycled building materials and so on make my hippie mama heart sing. But the truth is that I am not really qualified to evaluate those claims. Is the hotel actually any greener than any other hotel in Victoria? I can’t say for certain. I can say that other hotels aren’t making the same claims, or pursuing LEED certification. But I don’t really know how much staying in a “sustainable” hotel actually changes my own carbon footprint, and I couldn’t tell you where there’s room for improvement or how well they fulfill the criteria for a truly sustainable resort.
Like most consumers, I am not an expert. I can read articles and pore over packaging labels and do my best to understand what certain words and claims mean, but I don’t have a degree in environmental science or chemistry. I can’t always remember off the top of my head which ingredients I’m supposed to avoid and which ones are okay. I haven’t memorized the dirty dozen or the clean 15. And I know that some companies that seem to be green are really just greenwashing. Even though I’m not an expert, I want to make good choices, so where does that leave me?
When it comes to being a green consumer, there are a few basic guidelines that I follow to help me evaluate claims.
Amber’s Green Consumer Guidelines
- The greenest product is the one you don’t buy. Finding a way to do without something, or borrowing it from a friend, is the most sustainable choice you can make.
- The next greenest product is the one you don’t buy new. Shopping second-hand is a great way to get the things you need without using any resources to manufacture something all over again.
- Sustainability isn’t just about the product – it’s also about the packaging. Lots of small toys come in very big boxes filled with styrofoam, which will last for centuries in the landfill.
- If a company is hiding something from you, it’s probably a bad sign. If they’re not listing all of their ingredients, for instance, ask yourself why that is.
- On the flip side, if a company is doing something great, they won’t want to hide it from you. If the eggs don’t explicitly state that they’re cage-free, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re not cage-free.
- When it comes to enviro-claims on product labels, third-party certifications carry the most weight, because they’re independent and require companies to prove they fulfill the criteria. Anyone can say that a food is ‘natural’, but not just anyone can say that a food is USDA organic.
- If all else fails, and you really can’t tell what is the most sustainable choice, trust your judgment and have faith that your efforts are making a difference. Being green is about doing your best, not achieving perfection.
That last point is key. When you know better, you do better. So take small steps that build on each other, and slowly inform yourself. When making sustainable choices is sustainable for you, you’re more likely to stick with it. That’s what will make the real difference in the long run.
What about you? How do you evaluate green claims and separate real sustainability from greenwashing? I’d love to hear!