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How to Spot Eco-Fraud in 'Green' Products

When it comes to going green, it's better to think big.

That's the argument being made lately by groups such as Greenpeace and the Environmental Defense fund. The reasoning: Large global companies can with a single decision have as much impact on the environment as tens of thousands of individuals.

Last week, this column looked at the difficulties consumers face when trying to spend their dollars in ways that will keep them and the planet healthier, reward the companies that are trying to be eco-conscious and push stubbornly old-school companies in a greener direction.

Our job as consumers, environmental groups say, is to encourage this responsible behavior with our buying decisions. So here are a few common-sense tips to guide you on an eco-friendly trip through the aisles of your local retailers:

Be Skeptical

Americans seem to have no problem with this piece of advice. According to a new survey from advertising research firm Ipsos Reid, 70% of Americans believe that when a company labels a product "green," it's just a marketing gimmick.

This skepticism is valid. In every category, but especially those where there are no government programs or standardized labels to guide you (like cleaning products or cosmetics), it can be easy for companies to use feel-good words like "natural" and even "organic" to create a healthy, greenish aura around products that aren't either one to more than a token degree.

For example, General Motors (GM - Get Report)makes hybrid trucks under its GMC and Chevrolet labels that garner some of the worst ratings for fuel efficiency and air pollution. I asked Wal-Mart (WMT - Get Report)how it manages to sell organic T-shirts for $4, a too-good-to-be-true price that makes you wonder what corners it is cutting. A Wal-Mart spokesperson said the T-shirts are made overseas with U.S. cotton, and that they are clearance items that originally sold for $5.77, a price still low enough to raise a skeptical brow.

The easy way to feel secure is to look for third-party labels that have known standards behind them. The USDA's organic label guarantees a minimum standard for a range of fresh and packaged foods and even natural fiber clothing .

Similarly, the not-for-profit Forest Stewardship Council adds its label to lumber and other products made from sustainably harvested wood that sell in stores such as Home Depot (HD - Get Report). And Transfair USA's Fair Trade Certified label assures, among other things, that products found everywhere from Whole Foods (WFMI) to Starbucks (SBUX - Get Report) to your local grocery store are grown in a sustainable way.

You can also look for objective third-party monitoring. is a Web site run by the EPA and Department of Energy that grades automobiles for greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and fuel efficiency.

Read 'Labels'

Ellis Jones, a sociology professor at the University of California at Davis, looks forward to a day when all consumer items carry standardized environmental impact labels similar to the nutrition labels that packaged foods carry.

Timberland (TBL) already has a prototype to follow. The company's shoeboxes carry a "footprint" label that, among other things, tells how much energy it took to produce those shoes and what portion of it was renewable.

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