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Be an eco-friendly consumer

I consider myself a well-informed consumer who considers the environmental consequences of my product choices. I research options in advance and typically read product labels before I buy. However, I was duped recently when I purchased a face wash that claimed to be "all natural." After opening it, I realized that it contained plastic microbeads — something I have preached against on my soapbox for quite a while. They are terrible for the environment, and, thankfully, many companies are actually in the process of reformulating their products to avoid them.

I already know how to determine which products still contain microbeads, but I was rushing, and trusted the labeling on the front of the package stating that the product was "natural." In my haste, I didn't realize that I was making a poor choice, a choice that went completely against my principles.

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This duping happens to us all the time. We are constantly bombarded with advertising and labeling that makes us think we are doing something good for our environment when, in fact, what we are doing is not any better than if we had purchased another, usually less expensive, product.

In honor of this 45th Earth Day, I'm redoubling my efforts, and offering some quick tips on how to be a responsible, eco-friendly buyer.

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Stick to those classic three words: reduce, reuse, recycle. "Reduce" comes first because that is what we are supposed to try to do most often. Our consumer culture makes us want to buy, buy, buy. But, do we actually need all of that stuff? Do we need another coffee mug? That blanket with arms? If we reduce the amount of stuff that we are buying by not purchasing silly things and reusing the items that we already have, that is going to help the environment — and our savings accounts.

Shop local, and buy American. If we purchase high-quality products made and sourced locally, we reduce the carbon footprint of the items that we are buying while also supporting our nation's economy. It is hard to know where every component of a product comes from, and tracking down the source for every item would be a ridiculously difficult and tedious task.

However, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission regulates the claims made by companies producing American-made products. So, consumers can rest assured that if the product states that it is "Made in the USA," that "all or virtually all" of the product is sourced and made and regulated in the USA. Supporting locally-owned businesses who sell or use American-made products is not only eco-friendly, it is patriotic!

Do your research so you know what you're looking for and read the labels. If I had read that there was polyethylene (PE) as one of the ingredients on the face wash list, I would have known it contained microbeads and would not have purchased the scrub. And I might have taken the extra step to read that label if I knew what was behind the term "natural" when it comes to cleansers. In researching this op-ed, I learned that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) do not actually regulate the use of the term in cosmetics. ("Organic" labeling categories are regulated on cosmetics by the USDA.) In meat and poultry products, labeling a product "natural" is regulated by the FDA and must be followed with a statement explaining how it is natural. Typically this term means that no artificial ingredients or colors are used in the production of the product and that it has been "minimally processed" — not drastically transformed from the product's original state. From there, use your judgment.

These efforts may seem small, but by making informed choices — and becoming an activist with your wallet — you're making a positive impact in the world.

Kimberly Pause Tucker is director of the Stevenson University Center for Environmental Sustainability. Her email is kptucker@stevenson.edu.

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