Mommy Greenest Guide to Going Green

woman wearing glasses, holding toy globe in her handsIt’s almost a cliché, this “going green” stuff. And all the hype can make you want to stick your head in the sand. But I believe that we need to approach the process with respect and without judgement. Everyone’s choices matter—and nobody can make them for you. If you choose to shift something in your life, that decision will stick longer than if someone else tells you what you have to do. So with that in mind, let’s talk about some ideas that could help get you started.

Everyone wants to make a difference, but no one wants to give up the little things that we love. Making a difference doesn’t have to mean making a huge change in your lifestyle–sometimes it just means considering the alternatives.

First, it’s important to clarify the terms. “Green” isn’t a label or a certification—and going green is truly a subjective process. But there are some labels you can look for.

Labels 101

100 PERCENT ORGANIC means that every single ingredient in the product is organically grown: No pesticides, antibiotics, chemical fertilizers, bio-engineered, synthetic growth hormones, GMOs or irradiated ingredients. CERTIFIED ORGANIC products contain at least 95 percent organically grown ingredients. ECO CERT also contain at least 95 percent, as certified by an independent European agency, not the USDA. Certified GMO-FREE is… oh, you get the picture.

If animal welfare is important to you, look for the CRUELTY FREE label, which means the product was made without animal testing. VEGAN products are not animal tested and contain no animal ingredients such as honey or milk, but they aren’t necessarily environmentally sustainable.

Sadly, NATURAL is totally unregulated: It can mean that a product contains plant-derived ingredients and is cruelty- and preservative-free, but because natural is simply a descriptive, it could also mean the manufacturer just threw it on the label to make a sale.

Your Dollars Vote

In general, I prefer to choose organic products. I believe that they’re safer for you, and that their production is better for the earth. I also believe in “voting with your dollars,” which basically means that you show your support for more sustainable production by buying it.

Let’s take apples, for example. I was shocked when I learned that apples now top the list as one of America’s most pesticide laden fruits: A full 80% of apples grown in the United States are coated with a pesticide that’s banned in the European Union because of links to cancer.

But USDA Certified Organic apples aren’t grown with this pesticide—or any pesticide at all, for that matter. If we all bought organic apples, the sales of conventional apples would drop and the demand for organic apples would rise. Conventional apple growers would start growing organic in order to regain their market share. And the price of organic apples would fall as availability rose. Simple, right?

Carbon Connection

You’ve also probably noticed the term “carbon footprint,” which is basically a way to calculate the amount of non-renewable energy it takes to support your lifestyle. Scientists say we need to reduce this kind of energy use by at least 50% to fight global warming. And though some folks dismiss everyday eco initiatives like buying green light bulbs and hybrid cars as a mere drop in one heck of a bucket, others agree that if we all take action in our daily lives, these drops can add up to a flood. Unfortunately, most carbon calculators don’t take into account that the daily decisions we make every day can reduce our carbon footprints. They don’t care that you buy BPA-free bottles and organic food. But these things count!

9 Steps to Going Green

With that in mind, here are a few of my favorite lifestyle changes for going green. (For healthy eating and beauty recommendations, visit the Guides section.) Please don’t think you have to take every step now. Just choose one or two–you can click the header for more information–and make them stick!

1. Raise your plastic consciousness.

In general, try to reduce your use of plastics. Don’t microwave food in plastic—transfer it to glass or dishware instead, where it’s also safe for storage. If you have to use plastic, look for those labeled “BPA-free,” and always let food cool before you store in plastic. Speaking of BPA-free, many plastic water bottles still contain hormone-disrupting BPA, which can leach into the water that you drink. (Plus, bottled water isn’t required by law to be tested for safety, and has turned up positive for lead, copper, chlorine, mercury and—ick—giardia.) On the go, your best bet is filtered tap water—even a BPA-free plastic filter pitcher will do—and a stainless steel reusable water bottle. Bonus: Avoiding bottled water can save the average family $50 per month!

2. Stop Styrofoam.

Styrene—also known as polystyrene, and better known as Styrofoam—takes 500+ years to degrade, dissolves into tiny bits that end up in the ocean, is rarely recyclable, and is considered “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the government. Reduce your consumption by buying plant-based biodegradable if you need disposables and bringing your own cups to restaurants that use it. Order better so you leave less leftovers and if your favorite takeout still serves in styrofoam, bring your own container for them to fill, and explain why you refuse to bring home your food in a poisonous container.

3. Open a window!

The EPA found that the air inside the typical American home is actually more polluted than the air outside because of chemicals in our household cleaners and furnishings. But opening your windows just 10 minutes a day can make a difference to your indoor air quality.

4. Get poisons out from under your sink.

The American Academy of Pediatrics took a very firm stand against pesticides in recent years, linking them to “pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.” That’s big news. But until your doctor gets around to talking about it, please note that 80% of pesticide exposure occurs indoors through pest control products such as the sprays and powders with the poison-control labels that live under your sink. Once you’ve nixed products that show skull-and-crossbones, move on to eliminating triclosan, an antibacterial pesticide in many soaps and sanitizers that can comprimise your immune system, disrupt thyroid function and make you more susceptible to allergies. The FDA says soap-and-water is just as effective, anyway.

5. Just say no to paper—and plastic—and BYOB.

The average American tosses more than 300 plastic bags each year, many of which are floating in a virtual garbage dump in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that’s now the size of two Texases. Small enough to fit in your pocket or purse, reusable bags expand to hold everything from groceries to boots, and you can use them over and over again.

6. Sniff out synthetic fragrance.

They’re in our cleaners, air fresheners, beauty products and—of course—perfumes. And in addition to causing allergic reactions, reproductive problems and hormone disruption, synthetic fragrance might just make you fat: A study published by Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center recently linked phthalates in synthetic fragrance with obesity. Want to avoid them? Read your labels: If you see the word “fragrance” and it doesn’t tell you what natural ingredient it is derived from, put the product back on the shelf. If you want a shortcut, look for the “USDA Certified Organic” label—the same standards apply to home and beauty products.

7. Be like Mr. Rogers—lose the shoes.

When we wear shoes inside, we track pesticides, insecticides and dirt into our homes: Removing them at the door reduces exposure by a full 85%. Worried about offending guests? Just keep a few pairs by the door and take yours off when entering; they’ll get the picture, and if they don’t it’s up to you if you want to boot ‘em back to the Neighborhood.

8. When it comes to cleaning, listen to Grandma.

Mother doesn’t necessarily know best. Most of us clean our houses with the products that we remember from childhood—if it was good enough for mom, it’s good enough for us. But the chemicals in cleaning products introduced since the 1950s have been linked to illnesses like asthma and allergies, among other nasties too numerous to mention. Try simple, chemical-free formulas based on tried-and-true cleaners like baking soda and vinegar. You can even make your own for pennies, and add essential oils for a more pleasantly scented experience. These are the cleaners your grandmother probably used. Maybe Mom should have listened to her!

9. Schedule a shopping pause.

There are 160 million women in the United States. Women spend about $60 each month on clothes, and we dump an average of six pounds of textiles into the landfill. If we all stopped buying new clothes for one month we could save nearly one billion pounds of textile waste and $10 billion. Mind-boggling. This year, buy used, thrift or swap, but give up the mall for the month of January by committing to the Mommy Greenest Shop Drop Challenge!

Last Word

Everyone wants to make a difference, but no one wants to give up the little things that we love. Making a difference doesn’t have to mean making a huge change in your lifestyle–sometimes it just means considering the alternatives. Mommy Greenest is about providing information without judgement. Because at the end of the day, you’re the only person who can make the decisions that stick.

If you have a question about any of these recommendations–or anything on Mommy Greenest, for that matter–please leave me a comment below. It may take me a few days, but I read and respond to each and every one!

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