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msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/6/2007 2:00:26 PM ET 2007-05-06T18:00:26

"We need to realize we can have the world we want just by putting the right things in our shopping carts," says Diane MacEachern, founder of BigGreenPurse.com, a new Web site devoted to helping consumers get more 'green' for their buck.

Want clean rivers and healthy indoor air? "We have options," she says. Options like phosphate-free cleansers, low-vapor wall paint and formaldehyde-free flooring.

"Every time something is rung up at a register, it registers with the manufacturers — either reinforcing that what they are doing is working or that it is not," says MacEachern. She stresses that when it comes to being green, "It is not a matter of how much you spend but how you spend."

As product choices have expanded, buying green has become easier, and in many cases it is even cheaper than spending on less eco-friendly items and services.  Better yet, Birkenstocks are now optional.

For instance, at-home shopping service Peapod offers environmentally safe cleansers alongside the well-advertised high-phosphate versions, but with nearly identical unit prices.  Such products have migrated from the aisles of specialty stores to mainline supermarkets, although not to prime shelving locations, which sometimes makes them easy to overlook.

Other green products have also come down dramatically in price. "Compact fluorescent light bulbs used to be $20 apiece.  Now they are competitively priced with regular bulbs, especially when you consider they last nearly 10 times as long and reduce energy use," says MacEachern. 

These power-efficient bulbs in particular seem to be lighting the way toward greater consumer awareness: Home Depot celebrated Earth Day this year by giving away 1 million of them in a mass conversion effort. It was the "carbon emission equivalent of removing 70,000 cars from U.S. highways," according to the retailer’s newly launched Web site for its Eco Options brand, which encompasses some 6,000 of its products, including light bulbs.

It is far from alone.  Furniture retailer Crate & Barrel has begun selling a competitively priced sofa stuffed with soybean-derived foam. And according to Mike Italiano of the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability in Washington, which works with large multinational companies to create green manufacturing standards, global lighting products giant Philips has announced its commitment to move toward a fully energy-efficient product line. 

But while large corporations look for ways to help save consumers from themselves, consumers can help save the planet and some money by breaking themselves of environmentally insensitive habits and brand loyalties.

Bottled water is a prime area for planet improvement, suggests MacEachern.  "It is not even regulated to the same degree as tap water, yet through marketing people are convinced it is somehow healthier for them and the earth."  Not only does bottling water result in carbon emissions at the bottling plant and from delivery trucks, but it also adds a premium to something consumers already pay for through their water bills.  Then there is the plastic — lots of plastic, with bottles adding to landfills or in need of recycling, which also consumes energy. 

Other simple budget-friendly and environment-saving moves include washing clothes at colder temperatures, shifting from foil or plastic wrap to reusable containers for food storage and using cloth napkins instead of paper. According to The Natural Resources Defense Council,  forgoing a PC screen saver for an idle computer and instead just shutting the system off when not in use would cut $50 from electric bills each year.  Switching to laptops would save even more.  More ideas for creating both energy and household budget savings can be found on NRDC’s Web Guide to Greener Living.

Like developing healthier food habits, developing better planet habits means becoming a more educated consumer.

"We need to start reading all product labels the same way we read food labels," says MacEachern. "Only through a label can you confirm what you are getting. Terms like planet-friendly, eco- or animal-friendly don’t mean anything.  You need to see a third-party [green] verification."

One area particularly prone to eco-laundering right now is, appropriately enough, apparel.

"Currently when you look at the companies that are promoting green, many of them aren't talking about product," says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group Inc., a research group. "They are talking about knowledge of the issue or how you can participate.  Some aren't even making greener apparel."

He estimates eco-friendly apparel represents less than 1 percent of the industry’s market, but advertising the lifestyle accounts for about 20 percent. 

Covering your carbon tracks
Beyond rethinking habits and brand loyalties, consumers also have an opportunity to reduce guilt for those activities they are unable or unwilling to change, like traveling in motorized vehicles.  Many organizations will help erase those ‘carbon footprints’ by planting trees or through other environment-cleansing programs. 

For example, online travel agency Travelocity has partnered with the non-profit Conservation Fund to give its customers the option of offsetting the environmental impact of each trip when they book.

According to Travelocity’s travel editor-at-large, Amy Ziff, the environmental impact of an average four-night hotel stay, air travel and rental car for two people can be offset with a $25 donation to the fund.

Since the introduction of the carbon offset option last fall, the company has collected enough to plant 8,200 trees, allowing the fund to reforest a parcel of land decimated by Hurricane Katrina, says Ziff.  Travelocity’s British sister site, LastMinute.com, which has more of a history with offering an offset program, estimates 10 percent of its customers opt to purchase carbon offsets for their bookings. 

Going green may only seem like the latest fad, and certainly with Madison Avenue now talking a green game on behalf of its clients, skepticism is natural. But unlike cinch belts, padded shoulders and skinny jeans, it can actually help save consumers some green of their own, not to mention the planet we call home.

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