Thursday, November 5, 2009

Swine Flu Prevention

Flu season is upon us and the marketers are ready. Google "swine flu prevention" and you will see an incredible number of "public service announcements" promising ways to prevent swine flu. These commercials dressed up as informational articles are sponsored by companies like Dial Soap, Lysol, and Purell.
Is there a dark-side to this proffering of product? Even if these "preventative measures" are not helpful, are they actually harmful? Maybe.
First of all it is important to understand the differences between disinfectants, antibacterial products, antiseptics, and antibiotics. Antibiotics and antiseptics have distinct medical purposes. Antibiotics destroy microorganisms within the body and antiseptics destroy microorganisms on living tissue.

Household antibacterial soaps and wipes on the other hand use a small amount of an antibacterial agent called triclosan. Because triclosan is a potentially harmful substance, it's concentration in household products is restricted to the point that these products do not contain enough antibacterial agent to be effective. Study after study shows that washing with regular soap and water is just as effective as washing with antibacterial soap. So what is the harm in being a little overly cautious? Studies have linked triclosan to a range of health and environmental effects, from skin irritation, allergy susceptibility, bacterial and compounded antibiotic resistant, and dioxin contamination to destruction of fragile aquatic ecosystems. So whatever you do, leave the antibacterial soaps alone.
What about disinfectants? First of all, I have never seen a study which showed that the use of household disinfectants actually reduces the incident of the common cold or flu. (And believe me, I have looked.) What about their germ fighting claims? Well to be classified as a disinfectant a product must kill 99.9% of a specific bacterial test population. Household disinfectants do kill germs...but only on contact. They might be useful on cutting boards and knives when preparing raw meats or eggs or around the toilet if your house is hit with an intestinal flu. But air borne viruses are quite another thing.

Household disinfects dissipate quickly. They don't linger in the air and remove germs other than where they are wiped or sprayed and only upon immediate contact. Are you really going to wipe every door knob you touch? If you do, you could be doing a lot more harm than good. Most disinfectants are, by their very nature, potentially harmful (even toxic) to humans or animals. Household disinfectant sprays can aggregate asthma and other respiratory conditions. Disinfectant sprays and wipes can be corrosive to the skin, nasal passages and throat. There is evidence that the overuse of these substances may be leading to the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains.
Before you are tempted to reach for those antibacterial or disinfectant products ask yourself, is my family going to be at greater risk from some unknown germ or from a chemical known to harm people? And remember, the US Center for Disease control does not recommend these products. Instead it recommends washing hands with soap and water and using a hand sanitizer only when soap and water are not available.

Age-old common sense measures work too. Bacteria prefer damp-dark areas. Keep fresh air circulating in your home. Keep surfaces clean and dry. Let in as much sunlight as possible. Ultra-violet rays kill germs naturally.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Green Wash Alert

This is the kind of thing that drives me nuts!!!

The Daily Green has announced today that seven products have received the “Good Housekeeping Green Seal.” What are those products? Aveeno (owned by Johnson and Johnson), GreenWorks (owned by Clorox) and several Nature’s Source products (brought to you by SC Johnson the makers of Scrubbing Bubbles®, Shout® and Windex.)

Not the green products I would choose. None fully disclose their ingredients. They are not from companies that are known for their commitment to the environment. Their ingredient lists are full of chemicals that most of us would want to avoid.

What about the fabulous natural and organics products out there from companies with real earth-friendly credentials? How did these brands get selected? The official explanation reads right out of a “Marketer’s Green Washing Bible”.

But I have a very different theory. The Daily Green (which can be a good source for environmental information) happens to be owned by the Hearst Corporation, which happens to own Good Housekeeping. If you check the list of major advertisers in both Good Housekeeping and other Hearst Corporation publications you will most likely find Johnson and Johnson, Clorox and S C Johnson among them.

The Hearst Corporation does admit that they “are recognizing mainstream products making significant efforts in the right direction." And I suppose “mainstream” companies should get some kudos for identifying the marketing opportunity of a “green brand.” But “efforts in the right direction,” are hardly a substitute for a real commitment to earth-friendly production practices and “truth in labeling” standards.

I hope that most consumers are not fooled by these corporate marketing initiatives. But I know that many people, grasping for any information about the green merits of a product will be swayed by this kind of nonsense. I hope that my consultants and others truly committed to sharing information on reading labels and getting past the marketing fluff will make a dent in these multi-million dollar marketing campaigns.

The Daily Green lost some credibility with me today.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

This book will change the way I shop.

I just read Cheap by Ellen Ruppel Shell and it will completely change the way I shop. I image it is hard to sell a book about the “high cost of discount culture,” in the middle of a recession. But the author draws a distinction between the old fashioned notion of thrift and “cheap.” She says that, “thrift connotes some level of sacrifice and self-discipline, of patiently weighing one’s options and forgoing the immediate for deeper satisfaction …cheap is about scratching the itch, about making real the impossible dream of having one’s cake and eating it too.” She also draws a distinction between good value and cheap which many of us disregard when confronted by a sales sign. We don’t care if something is poorly made or doesn’t fit quite right. We no longer need to save money for months or even weeks to furnish our homes or clothe ourselves. And when the cheap-lacquered ash veneer muddles with coffee spills or the paper-thin tee wears a hole, we don’t despair that we cannot sew it or sand it smooth again. It is simply time to go out and buy a new one.

She delves into the “cheap” psychology that makes us peruse the dollar shelves, picking up stuff just in case we might need it. Why we might spend more on gas to drive to the next town to save $3 on a pair of tube socks or buy a watch off the street (or frankly at Target) which is as likely to tell time next month as sprout wings and fly. Or my personal favorite, pick up a dress or a pair of shoes on sale which doesn’t quite fit right, is not the best color and is of marginal quality, wear it once and then throwing it in the back of our closet.

While I am familiar with many of the games retailers use to take advantage of this cheap psychology some of her examples were new to me. Like the practice of mattress discounters to inflate the price of all mattress to say $1,000 and then rotate the brand “on sale” monthly, selling that brand “on sale” at its proper price of $250. We probably aren’t fooled by the $1,000 price tag or the sale and we probably bought the mattress for $250 anyway. But maybe we were influenced just a little into thinking that a good quality mattress should be around $1,000. When an honest company decides to price their mattresses at the proper $250 price, we reject it. We don’t want a $250 mattress for $250 we want a $1,000 mattress for $250.

High/low retailing is another example. She uses the example of a discount jeweler. Turning over a diamond necklace she sees a suggested retail price of $3,329 but is assured by the sales clerk that at this store she can get it for the bargain price of $832. An appraisal after the fact showed the diamonds to be a step above industrial grade. And in fact she found the same necklace on Ebay for $299.

We might not have fallen for any of these specific tricks but most of us have rummaged through a pile of boxy, ill-fitting cashmere sweaters discounted to $75.99 and suspended disbelief that the $250 retail price might actually mean something.

A careful look at Wal-Mart shows that Wal-Mart heavily discounts 1 to 2 percent of its frequently purchased items such as apple juice and toilet paper, items where a few cents here or there will make us stock up. They may even price these below cost as “loss leaders.” But on other items the pricing is only marginally discounted or not discounted at all. She says that “Wal-Mart actually has higher than average prices on about a third of its stock. On those items in which prices are lower, the average savings is 37 cents with about one-third of items carrying a savings of no more than 2 cents.”

Of course Wal-Mart and other mega-discounters have helped lower prices. As they tell us on the ads all the time, they can probably take credit for the decline in prices on many consumer goods over the last 30 years. But Ms. Shell lays out in a stark, detailed analysis what the rise in these discount retail giants have cost us in terms of jobs and real wages as well as the environment.

Lower prices do not come from the pockets of shareholders, mangers or CEOs. Prices are reduced by among other things lowering wages and benefits of workers in the retail industry. A University of CA study found that from a national perspective thanks to Wal-Mart the total earning of retail workers declined by $4.5 billion. Besides lowering wages, discounters have also flattened the employment hierarchy. The traditional retail “career ladder” is gone. Minimum wage sales clerks rarely rise to the level of company management positions any more.

She has more examples of the exploitation of workers throughout the global market place than must of us want to stomach. And her examples of factory farming methods used to grow “cheap” food would turn most of us into vegetarians (at least for a day.)

But as the founder of a green products company, it is the environmental costs of this unsustainable mentality that I can not ignore. Her most telling example is IKEA which is called “the least sustainable company on the planet.” IKEA is the third largest consumer of wood in the world. The timber used by IKEA comes mostly from Eastern Europe and the Russian Far East where half of all logging according to the World Bank is illegal. The illegal Russian logs are milled into planks by low-wage Chinese workers and shipped to border towns in low-wage China. When Chinese workers demanded better wages, the head of IKEA flew to Vietnam and met with the prime minister to make a deal for lower tariffs, lower docking feed and “ensured access to wood” in exchange for employing more Vietnamese.

I am not going to recount the whole book here. I will just quote a paragraph:

“As citizens we recognize this “collateral damage,” deplore it, and frequently decry it. But as consumers we habitually downplay and ignore it. We rail against the exploitation of low-paid workers in Asia as we drive to the Big Box to save three bucks on tube socks and a dollar on underpants. We fume over the mistreatment of animals by agribusiness but freak out at the uptick in food prices. We lecture our kids on social responsibility and then buy them toys assembled by destitute children in some far flung shore. Maintaining cognitive dissonance is one way to navigate a world of contradictions and on an individual basis there’s much to be said for this. But somehow the Age of Cheap has raised cognitive dissonance to a societal norm.”

The book illustrates the problems in clear, unsettling terms. I wish she would write a second book to tell us what to do about it. But at least as a consumer, I will attempt to take responsibility for my actions. Rather than blaming Wal-Mart, the government, manufacturers and others for our economic, social and environmental ills, I will recognize that they are only responding to my “market signals.”

Friday, July 24, 2009

Great and Not so Great "Green" Products

I get sent a lot of sample "green" products to try, so I thought I would share a couple of my favs and not so favs.

Green Products I Love: (Besides our Chartreuse Products of course)

Mythic Paint
I had to repaint my kid’s bedrooms and was looking for a low VOC option. I found something even better, an ultra low VOC, nontoxic option. As we all know, paints stink. But that smell is not just unpleasant, it’s dangerous. The off gassing which comes from VOCs in paints contributes to global warming, ozone depletion as well as serious health effects. Many major brands have come out with low VOC options but they are still toxic (the warning labels would scare any parent) and you still have to discard them in designated hazardous waste locations. Mythic Paint has no warning label because it doesn’t contain anything that you need to be afraid of. It is a water-based latex paint with no toxic solvents (and no toxic smell.) You can throw it away with your regular trash. It comes in over one thousand colors. I found a perfect match for my kid’s room. And it goes on just like premium paint. My contractor was truly impressed. Best of all two years later, it still looks great. Unfortunately, it is not as easy to find as major brands and it costs more. I am not sure I would do my whole exterior in it for example, but for my kid’s rooms it was perfect.

Magic Nail Buffers
I’ll admit that I am a girl who likes to be groomed. My house might be falling apart and my calendar might be exploding but if I have a clean set of polished nails somehow it feels as if I am still holding it together. But the knowledge that major nail polish manufacturers have only recently removed lead from their polish, and only after heaps of public exposure and pressure, leaves me wondering what else might be lurking in those pots of color. That’s why I was thrilled to find these new buffers. These buffers go by many names and are available at most salons, spas, and beauty supply stores. The one I have is from Onsen. The rectangular buffer has two white, one blue, and one gray side. You buff your nails in the order on the instructions and presto, nails which look as if they have a polished clear coat without the use of any chemicals. The buffed look lasts longer than polish as well. After years of paying someone else to do my nails (so that they didn’t look like a kindergartener painted them) I can now expertly do this particular grooming service at home saving me time and money. The only down-side is that I no longer get to read all the back issues of People I used to devour at the salon.

Organic Cotton Hanky Panky Thongs
The best thongs around (if you haven’t tried them you should) now come in organic cotton. I found them at Olive Boutique (who also happens to carry our products.) Made from 100% cotton organically grown in the U.S., the thong is available in both Original and Low Rise styles. It features a natural cotton color as no bleach or dyes were used. It is amazingly soft to the touch and feels smooth against your skin. And best of all it is the same price as their regular thongs. Of course you're not going to save the world from global warming with lingerie. But it just shows you don't have to be frumpy to be organic.

Not so Great “Green Products”

Magic Laundry Balls (Also called Greenwash balls)
These balls go by many names and have been around for a while but are becoming increasingly available in reputable green retailers. The sales pitch is extremely compelling to anyone looking for an environmentally-friendly laundry alternative. No detergent needed. The package explains that these simple, little balls will wash you laundry over 1,000 times without the use of detergent. The balls retail at around $40 bucks so if it worked, it would be a remarkably earth-friendly and economic alternative to laundry detergent. We were sent a sample to consider carrying as a product and I am sorry to report that the product did not work very well. It did remove all traces of odor but it washed the clothes about as effectively as washing without detergent. The soaking and agitation do eliminate some dirt but it did nothing for the hard to remove stains from my three active boys. So I would recommend giving these $40 miracles a miss. In my opinion Chartreuse Laundry Soap Nuts are much better.

Dryer Balls
Again a great concept, toss these plastic balls in your dryer and reduce drying time while leaving your clothes soft. I went to the website to read their independent testing report to check out the claim about reduced drying time. I could not make heads or tails of their report but it was not at all convincing. Their report also admitted that the softening effect, while present, was not substantial enough to be noticed by most participants. The balls are also made of PVC, not exactly the nontoxic product that the manufacturer claims. We don't claim that the Chartreuse Reusable Dryer Sheets will reduce drying time but it is a chemcial free way to remove static. And you don't need a softener if you are using the Chartreuse Laundry Soap Nuts.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

My Husband Won't Use My Shopping Bags

My husband refuses to use my reusable shopping bags. Okay, I get that he won’t carry the Butterfly Bag which could be considered a bit feminine. But my compact bags are small and sleek and come with a lovely belt buckle clip. They could sit on his hip, right there next to his ultra-masculine BlackBerry.

“I’d look like a dork,” he tells me.

This from a man who walks around town with holes in his shirt because he is too lazy to buy new ones. Back when the children were born, I quit the job as his personal shopper. It was hard enough to keep my growing boys in proper clothing. I told him he was on his own for socks, underwear and t-shits. This was about ten years ago and I swear he has not added a stitch to his wardrobe. Last week, when we went to dinner, I noticed he was wearing a fairly dapper shirt. I almost complimented him on his purchase until I recognized the shirt as one I had bought him in college --twenty years ago.

So why is he self-conscious about a perfectly innocuous shopping bag? My husband is not a stubborn man. In fact, he is what you might call “a trooper.” When I first started Chartreuse, he spent his evenings and weekends helping me pump lemongrass lotion and meticulously place Chartreuse labels on each bottle. To this day, he is my late night document proofer and occasional IT support. Lately he has been taking on more and more of the domestic tasks around the house, including shopping and preparing our meals. He is a much better and more enthusiastic cook than me, so the whole family is grateful for the change. But I can’t help noticing the large number of plastic bags piling up in what was once an empty bag dispenser.

I remind him that I sell shopping bags for a living to many of the same neighbors who will see him bagging with plastic at the grocery store. These supportive neighbors are proudly carrying my bags. He tells me it is perfectly fine for them, but he doesn’t want to look like a dork.

My eight year old son gave me the same excuse the other day. I dashed to school between two conference calls to see his end of the year choral show. My boys are not performers and their enthusiasm for this annual ritual has gotten much worse since the school hired a choral instructor who insists the children add corny movements to the songs. I arrived late but easily spotted my son in the front row. He was the only child not wearing spring colors as instructed. (That would be my fault.) He was also the only kid not dancing. He stood in the front row, his hands in his pocket, mouthing the words with a painful grimace. When I asked him why he didn’t do any of the dances he said, “I didn’t want to look a dork.” True the moves seemed specifically designed to make the kids look as ridiculous as possible, but I explained to him that by being the only kid in the whole class not dancing, he looked even more like a dork.

Why do we worry so much about what people think? What makes my husband behave like an eight year old child, when he enters the grocery store? I could lecture him on the poor example he is setting for his children. I could inform him of the alarming facts around plastic bag usage. But we have been married for sixteen years, so my words will drift out his ears along with my reminder to pick up milk

On the other hand, his comfort with disheveled clothing is perhaps a bit more green than my insistence on unblemished clothing. And the bags filled with fresh produce may actually contain less plastic than the multitude of take out containers (always packaged in a Chartreuse bag) I used to bring home when I was solely responsible for dinner. So perhaps I will stop nagging him and wait for the day when so many people are bringing their own bags, he feels like a dork for not having one.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Confessions of Greenhorn

As this blog will be about my journey, I feel that I must begin it with a confession. It is often assumed that since I founded a company aimed at sharing environmental information, I am a good environmentalist. So I feel the need to admit up front that I am not green, or at least not as green as I would like to be. I am on a journey along with everyone else. I am a late comer, an interloper, a newly converted evanjelical who is still intimidated by conversions about carbon credits, solar inverters and the pros and cons of biofuels.

It is precisely my ignorance which spurred me to begin this company. I love learning and I love sharing what I learn.

I have finally gotten to the point where I remember my shopping bags but I still forget my coffee cup. I can't figure out the trick to get my husband to bring bags. The fact that I sell green bags for a living doesn't seem to sway him. I lecture the children on turning off lights yet my neighbor has to come over in the middle of the night to turn off the carport light I left on. We plant tomatoes, the closest we have come to a backyard garden, and then forget to water them. We recycle everything we can only to discover the plethora of take-out containers is too much for the can. I color my hair and paint my toe nails (with lead-free nail polish) and having been raised in the South, I find it very hard to go outside without a the proper cover of make-up.

But I am an optimist. I have come a long way from the days of swifter disposable mops and Clorox wipes. I have a long way to go. I hope that this blog will begin a dialog with others on their own journey to going green. We can learn from each.