Green initiatives fly some red flags

The Baltimore Sun

You can see major movies that are "carbon neutral," buy any flavor of organic yogurt and even watch as Bob Costas recaps Sunday football by candlelight for NBC.

With climate change increasingly at the top of people's minds - it was identified as a major concern for students at a recent round table of university and college presidents - big business is responding.

In some cases, the effort is real; in others, it's what Garvin Jabusch, a former portfolio manager for the Sierra Club Stock Fund, calls "green washing."

"They have marketing materials that say how green they are but, in fact, they're only doing the minimum," said Jabusch, who now manages investment portfolios with an environmental bent at Green Alpha Advisors, based in Boulder, Colo.

Here's how to wade through the hype and put your eco dollars to good use:

Get specific.

Carefully read labels and other environmental claims on packages.

"Don't take it for granted that they are doing something meaningful," said Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist and policy analyst for Consumer Reports.

The federal Department of Agriculture, for example, has established standards for how organic products can be labeled. Food with ingredients at least 95 percent organic can be marketed as "organic." Products that are 100 percent organic receive a "100% organic" label.

While the Department of Agriculture does not certify every product, companies whose claims don't meet the agency's standards can be fined.

Keep in mind that there are no government standards for products marketed as "natural" or "free-range." The best you can do is comb through the list of ingredients (and even then, you're in the dark on how the ingredients are produced).

"With 'natural,' it's up to the consumer to figure out if it's worth the premium placed on it," Rangan said.

Aside from groceries, other companies are beginning to outline green initiatives in so-called corporate social responsibility reports, or CSRs, which are updated annually. You can find it on a company's Web site.

"You have companies that are very rigorous with CSR reporting and treat it with the same care of an annual financial statement," said Jeff MacDonagh, portfolio manager of Domini Social Investments.

"There are also some companies that treat it as marketing," MacDonagh said.

Beware the middleman.

If you need help with being a green consumer, there are plenty of companies eager to assist you - for a fee.

GreenDimes, a recent startup in Palo Alto, Calif., for example, charges $15 to stem the flow of junk mail you receive, helping cut down on paper waste. The price also finances tree planting (10 are planted with each new customer) and environmental education.

For $36 a year, NativeEnergy promises to "offset" the estimated carbon-dioxide emissions of a college dorm room (about 3 tons' worth). To do so, the company invests a portion of your dollars in renewable energy projects.

You also can calculate - and pay for - other carbon-emitting habits, such as air travel and electricity usage. A round-trip flight between Chicago and New York will set you back $12.

Here again, you have to tread carefully: It's difficult to track just how your offset dollars are spent and to what effect. Recently, the Federal Trade Commission announced it will investigate the market and consider regulations.

As for stopping junk mail, you can largely do that yourself - for $1 - through the Direct Marketing Association (

GreenDimes contends it helps you get off mailing lists of companies that respond only when contacted directly in the mail with a postcard. Total companies with that policy: four, according to GreenDimes.

Become informed.

To get a handle on what's real and what's hype, check out these resources online:

For organic standards, go to

You can learn about environmentally friendly products and habits at and

And you can check out what the Federal Trade Commission has to say about environmental claims at

Carolyn Bigda writes for Tribune Media Services.

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