Jennifer Smith cleans her floors with a solution of vinegar, baking soda, hot water and a dash of ammonia. She buys recycled toilet paper and no paper towels. Her kitchen faucet and shower head are equipped with an aerator that limits water flow. Ms. Smith recharges household batteries with a solar charger, uses a clothesline instead of a dryer, and covets a non-electric floor sweeper offered in the Real Goods catalog of "products for energy independence."
And she never buys anything that has been heavily wrapped in plastic and cardboard.
For Ms. Smith, living an environmentally sound life means being an informed and modest consumer. "I'm a very conscientious buyer," says the senior manager for education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
In her total commitment to the environment, Ms. Smith is probably atypical. But millions of American consumers share the spirit, if not the letter, of Ms. Smith's dedication.
Tomorrow, the 23rd anniversary of Earth Day will be celebrated. It has only been in the past four years, however, that consumers, alarmed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, ozone depletion, acid rain and other eco-emergencies, have taken Earth Day's year-round mantra -- reduce, reuse, recycle -- to heart.
"We're seeing that the environment is having a tremendous impact on consumer behavior," says Anthony Casale, president of American Opinion Research, the parent company of Environmental Research Associates in Princeton, N.J.
In a recent Advertising Age study, for example, 73 percent of those surveyed said that environmental marketing claims sometimes or often affected buying decisions.
Business -- from thriving entrepreneurs creating new products less harmful to the environment to Fortune 500 companies retooling huge industrial plants to cut pollution -- is responding in kind.
In the first half of 1992, 11.4 percent of new products marketed in the United States made "green" claims, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report on environmental marketing terms.
"I honestly believe green thinking is becoming a fact of life, in both big and small business . . . not only because it's socially responsible; it's going to be good business," says Norman Dean, president of Green Seal, a non-profit labeling program for household products based in Washington.
Today, a staggering array of items claim to be biodegradable, non-ozone depleting, non-petroleum based, un-bleached and recycled.
Giant "eco expos" held throughout the country showcase biodegradable pens, synthetic textiles fashioned from plastic soda bottles, organic clothing and shoes made from recycled rubbish.
Mainstream manufacturers and retail chains establish in-house environmental initiatives, tout their own green products and form alliances with environmental watchdog groups. Many food companies now sell products made from ingredients gently harvested from the South American rain forest.
In 1992, the green mail-order catalog industry reaped $38 million pitching everything from laundry powder, deodorant crystals and enviro-toothbrushes to necessities for living off the utility grid, according to Carl Frankel, editor and publisher of GreenMarket Alert, a Connecticut newsletter that tracks green industries.
And environmental boutiques such as Environmentally Sound Products in Towson and Blue Planet in Boston are cropping up.
Young people, beneficiaries of environmental education programs missed by their parents, are the best customers for environmental products, Mr. Casale says.
Sara Burch, a Bryn Mawr School junior, is a prime example. After rallying her family to recycle, use sink and shower aerators and buy in bulk from Environmentally Sound Products, the young environmental activist is now lobbying other students to use canvas lunch sacks and avoid drink boxes.
Shopping green is a challenge, she says. "You really have to look hard. You can't just believe everything you read."
Discriminating consumers like Sara, overwhelmed by competing claims of environmental friendliness, may refer to scores of books, like "Shopping for a Better World: The Quick and Easy Guide to Socially Responsible Supermarket Shopping," published by the Council on Economic Priorities.
In 1992, the Federal Trade Commission developed guidelines for companies that make fuzzy environmental claims such as "environmentally friendly," "cruelty free" or "biodegradable." So far, the FTC has taken action against 20 companies, including Mr. Coffee, which allegedly claimed falsely that its filters were "cleaned and whitened without using chlorine bleach," an environmentally unfriendly material.
New labeling programs, such as Green Seal and Scientific Certification Systems, which set environmentally safe standards for products, will also help consumers discern between what Carl Frankel of GreenMarket Alert calls "greened-up" versions of established products and "deep-green" products that actively enhance the environment.
"One of the reasons Green Seal was created [is that] it's a very confusing environment out there," Norman Dean says. "It's hard to separate people who are really doing good and those just claiming to do good. In some areas, it's hard to know how to do the right thing."
Green consumers themselves have been lumped into categories by a Roper Organization survey, according to their commitment to environmental issues. The most dedicated group, "true-blue greens," made up 20 percent of adults in 1992, the survey said. In descending order, the other groups are "greenback greens, "sprouts," "grousers" and "basic browns."
Gloria Hemmy of Severna Park is easily a true-blue green, who buys her milk in reusable glass bottles, participates in an organic gardening coop and loads up monthly on household supplies from Environmentally Sound Products. She has a handy rule of thumb for living lightly on the Earth: "If you don't need it, don't buy it."
Mrs. Hemmy gets frustrated with others who believe they are environmentally correct, just because they recycle. She asks them, "Oh, what do you buy that's recycled?"
"Consumers clearly have a misconception about recycling," says Anthony Casale of Environmental Research. "They think it's the answer to our environmental problems, instead of one answer."
In fact, "A product affects the environment at every stage of its life cycle, from sourcing new material, to production, to transporting to market, to trash after it's done," Mr. Casale says.
He fears that false hopes placed on recycling will result in future backlash against green business and industry.
And even if consumers are aware of green choices available to them, convenience is still a paramount consideration, says Neil Adleberg, who opened Environmentally Sound Products two years ago. "There's a great desire to use environmentally friendly products, he says. But consumers make no great effort to get green products, Mr. Adleberg says. "If it's easy, they will do it, even if they're not sure it's environmentally safe. We're out of the way. People have to make an extra effort. That's not a great sign for us."
Although some green products, such as pricey and long-lasting compact fluorescent light bulbs and concentrated laundry detergents are cheaper in the long run, consumers generally are unwilling to pay more for them, says Mr. Casale of Environmental Research.
John Curreri is an exception. He and his wife are expecting a baby, and bought paint at Environmentally Sound Products for their child's room. An avid woodworker, he also buys stains from the store. "In my way of thinking, if you really want to do something, you have to put out a little energy and maybe a little more money," the White Marsh resident says.
For Norman Dean of Green Seal, true environmental improvement will not come from sweeping regulations and policies, but from wise consumer decisions.
"One of the challenges of people who care about the environment is to educate individuals that they can make a difference," he says. Buying a low-flow shower head, recycled bathroom tissue or green laundry soap may not seem like a big deal, he says. But, "multiply that by hundreds of millions of purchasing decisions a week. That has enormous impact."
Tips for green consumers:
* Most household cleaning can be accomplished with vinegar, soap, baking soda, washing soda, borax and ammonia.
* Replace white cotton with natural, unbleached cotton.
* Buy products made from recycled materials to encourage the market for recyclables.
* Remember that a recyclable package does not necessarily contain recycled material.
* Avoid mixed-material containers like juice boxes made of plastic, paper and aluminum that are difficult to recycle.
* Buy products with minimum packaging.
* Buy in large size or bulk.
* Read labels and be wary of vague environmental claims.
* Buy products that are reusable.
* Waxed and coated paper (found in milk cartons) cannot be recycled in most areas.
* Stay informed on what products are environmentally safe.
* Avoid paper and personal hygiene products that are chlorine bleached, a process that creates toxic chemicals that pollute rivers and harm wildlife.
* Buy only what you need.