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Why It's Hard to Shop Green

A lack of reliable information muddies the water for consumers

Kermit the Frog must be in his glory, what with all the green products being directed at consumers lately.

Advertisers would have you believe you can drive your


Prius hybrid to

Whole Foods

, or


for that matter, to buy

General Electric's

energy efficient

light bulbs. Some of


Kashi brand Organic Promise cereal, and a few of Wal-Mart's own organic

T-shirts before heading home to do some laundry in your energy-star qualified


washing machine.

Then you can put your feet up (perhaps in some organic cotton slippers) and rest easy, knowing that you and those giant corporations are saving the Earth. It seems big corporations would like to have you believe that it is indeed quite easy being green if you just follow their lead with your money.

If only it were that simple.

Ellis Jones, a sociologist at

UC Davis, wrote

The Better World Shopping Guide

because he believes that many Americans are trying to make more responsible choices with their shopping dollars and don't have any reliable way to do it when choosing between mass-market products in mainstream stores. "The information out there is very scattershot," he says.

"Green-washing," essentially the act of putting forth specious green advertising that at best has little substance behind it and at worst covers up corporate irresponsibility, is a major concern for both everyday consumers and environmental diehards.

It's a recurring subject on green-oriented blogs. Witness a discussion on

TheStreet Recommends

Treehugger earlier this year on the green-washing of

Procter & Gamble's

(PG) - Get Report


But if you want to spend your dollars in ways that will keep you and the planet healthier, ways that will reward the companies that have a green leg to stand on, how do you go about it?

For one thing, you can look for companies that really stand to gain from their green endeavors.

Environmental purists scoff when a company makes a highly publicized green move that it clearly benefits from -- say Wal-Mart's

use of energy-efficient lighting in its stores (which saves it a ton of money) or GE's push into products like

wind turbines and

clean water technologies (which will make it a ton of money).

But I say, get real.

More often than not, becoming environmentally responsible means being more conscientious, changing ingrained habits and foregoing the race to the bottom where everything is as cheap and convenient as it can possibly be. But something is not inherently greener just because it involves sacrifice.

Individuals and corporations alike are more likely to stick to their new environmentally friendly behaviors if they get something tangible from them. To me, one sign that something is just green-washing rather than genuinely green is that it doesn't change anything very much.

The company hasn't made a major investment that it stands to significantly gain from, nor is it challenging the consumer to try something that's substantially new, like driving a hybrid car. It's


Frito-Lay selling Natural Cheetos alongside the regular kind.

Selling more wind turbines doesn't absolve General Electric of past environmental slights (its

PCBs are still sitting at the bottom of the Hudson) or of being responsible in other areas of its business -- say, manufacturing jet engines.

But it does make the company more likely to push for commercial and regulatory conditions conducive to using wind power. And that's worth a few bucks for the company and its shareholders.

After all, if we don't start somewhere, we won't get anywhere.

Next week:

More tips for using your dollars in a more environmentally responsible way.

Eileen P. Gunn writes about the business of life and is the author of "Your Career Is An Extreme Sport." You can learn more about her at

her Web site.