It's non-toxic, biodegradable and all-natural. Its manufacture is energy-efficient. It's the ultimate in eco-clothing.
The fur coat.
According to the Fur Council of Canada — fur, like organic lettuce and solar power, is green.
The furs that are green are abundant, and never from endangered species, said Alan Herscovici, executive vice president of the nonprofit industry group.
Fur farms use leftovers from the human food supply, and the harvest of wild fur is crucial to maintaining ecological equilibrium.
"Too many beavers can cause flooding and too many foxes can decimate the songbird population," Herscovici said.
As for the alternative — synthetic fur — it's made from non-biodegradable petrochemicals.
Green sells. So, whether it's chocolates, eco-travel or a full-length mink or muskrat coat, more manufacturers are labeling their products as environment-friendly or "green" in an effort to broaden appeal and boost sales.
But all that glistens is not green, said Ted Martens with Sustainable Travel International, a nonprofit group that promotes eco-friendly travel.
"Unfortunately, too many people are taking the green name and running with it for marketing purposes," said Martens, the group's director of outreach and development.
Surrounded by all that is verdant, it's no wonder we're confused: Who determines what is green? And how do you evaluate whether a product or service really is green?
"It's a bit of a stretch to say that wearing fur is going to help the environment," said Bruce Cox, executive director of Greenpeace Canada, commenting on the fur council's campaign — www.furisgreen.com. "They present this idea that they are the stewards of the environment. There's a good chance the coat the model is wearing was a farm-raised fur that was electrocuted. I don't think a lot of people actually buy the message."
Is there a soldier of fortune on your gift list?
BAE Systems in Arlington, VA., is developing "green" armaments, including lead-free bullets and a hybrid electric drive system for combat vehicles as part of the U.S. Army's Future Combat Systems program.
"Anybody can make a green claim; it's up to the consumer to understand what that claim means and to decide if they want to do business with that company," said Scot Case, vice president of TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Group, located in Reading, Pa.
More than 30 million Americans are "true Greens who regularly buy green products" according to Mintel International Group, a Chicago market research company.
As a result, everything from furniture polish to sexual aids (no potentially harmful phthalates) are suddenly turning "green."
Greenwashing — the act of misleading consumers into believing that a company's environmental practices or its product or services are environment-friendly — is pervasive, Case said.
Inaccurate, unsubstantiated and vague claims are common green-washing ploys, as is the "hidden-trade-off," a marketing strategy that boasts a product's environment-friendly attributes, but fails to mention its drawbacks, "such as an appliance that is said to be energy-efficient, but is full of mercury," Case said.
TerraChoice recently evaluated more than 1,000 widely available consumer products — including appliances, personal products and household cleaners — that purport to be green. Using criteria established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Consumers Union, Canadian Consumer Affairs Branch and other agencies, it found that the majority of those products "made claims that are either demonstrably false or that risk misleading intended audiences."
"When it comes to these kinds of claims, this is the wild, wild West," Case said.
What's a consumer to do?
The Federal Trade Commission advises consumers to look for specific information. Vague or general claims "may sound warm and fuzzy, but they generally offer little information of value."
"Consumers should not make a purchasing decision based on a green claim unless they understand what that claim means," Case said.
If a product lacks legitimate certification, check the packaging, the company's website or call the manufacturer's toll-free number.
"If they can't explain what the term environmentally friendly means, don't buy the product," he said.
And even if they can explain their terms, buyer beware.
The green marketplace, worth an estimated $200 billion in 2006, is growing, the Mintel Group said. To cash in, some manufacturers are creating their own green standards to convince shoppers that their products are environment-friendly, Case said.
When manufacturers develop their own rules — surprise, surprise — "they tend to meet them," he said.
According to the fur council, to be considered environment-friendly, apparel and accessories should be made from natural materials that are renewable, durable, biodegradable, nontoxic and energy-efficient in its production, use and disposal.
Using that definition, fur is as green as a hybrid car.
"I have been an environmentalist for 15 years," Case said. "And I don't know any environmentalists who wear fur."
Greenness, like beauty, is ultimately in the eye of the beholder
Good green standards are based on multiple environmental considerations — the impact of the raw materials that go into a product, the environmental impact associated with its manufacture and transport, and its ability to be recycled when it's no longer usable, Case said.
That said, it's up to consumers to decide how green is their intended purchase.
"If you read their definition of green and you agree with it, then buy it."