If you're convinced that going green means spending more for less, Diane MacEachern is prepared to convince you otherwise. In Big Green Purse: Using Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World, she explains how environmentally friendly products are often healthier, of higher quality, and even cheaper. MacEachern also provides tips at the Big Green Purse blog. U.S. News spoke with her about how to start shopping in a way that's more sustainable for the planet. Excerpts:
What gave you the idea to write this book?
After watching how long it takes to pass legislation and how tough it is to enforce regulations, I was looking for an alternative, something that would make me feel like I could still make a difference.... I was watching what was happening in the marketplace. [It] was going crazy. Every day there were more and more products that were marketing themselves as being more environmentally responsible. I realized: Women spend 85 cents of every dollar in the marketplace; we have so much clout, and consumers generally have an enormous amount of clout. I figured, "Why don't we take the message directly to manufacturers?" We can easily do that every time we push that shopping cart up to the checkout counter.
What kinds of environmentally friendly things do you do in your own life?
I've been buying organic food and organic milk for a really long time. That's a no-brainer for me because I have two kids at home and we drink a lot of milk, and it seemed like that was a really important step to take. But I'm just like a lot of other consumers. I'm looking every time I go shopping for a greener alternative. So the other day, I noticed in my traditional, conventional supermarket that I could buy toilet tissue that's made from recycled paper products [and] I can buy cleaning products that have fewer dangerous chemicals in them.
I redid my house; I painted, put in new carpeting. And the carpeting we put in is made of 100 percent recycled soda bottles, and the paint had no VOCs, or volatile organic chemicals, in them. Those are all things that any consumer could consider, at least.
Do you think there's any loss of quality with those products?
At least in my case, I felt that with the paint, the quality is definitely just as good as the more toxic paint, and I would argue that it's better because it leaves no odor.
Organic anything can be pricey. Is there anyway around paying more?
I encourage people to look at their entire household budget and find where you are wasting money. For example, people complain about the high price of organic apples but then spend $10 to $15 on bottled water. Or they'll say they can't afford paper towels made out of recycled fibers, and yet they're still spending $10 to 15 a week on throwaway paper products, when in fact they could buy a sponge that's going to last three or four months. So there's actually a lot more leeway in everyone's budget than we realize.
In the long term, if you can't find an extra $10 a week for products that are really going to protect you and the environment, then you need to step back and think about how you're spending your money overall, because there is a lot of cushion in most of our budgets.
So it's about prioritizing?
It's about prioritizing and also being aware. A real issue for men and women is time. We're just really busy. Sometime it feels like it just takes more time to make that decision, but once you get in the habit, honestly it takes no more time to buy a compact fluorescent light bulb than an incandescent that you'd be throwing away much sooner.
And sometimes you say it makes sense not to purchase anything at all.
The very first step is always to reuse what you have or reuse what somebody else has. There's a long tradition in this country of having yard sales and swap meets, and now with the Internet, it's actually becoming really easy to do that. There's something called freecycle.org. Find it online; inevitably somebody else is going to want [what you have].
What changes are companies making?
Companies are really watching the market very carefully, and they are jumping on this bandwagon like never before. There are some leaders in the marketplace like Whole Foods or Wal-Mart and even Target that are really trying to put a lot of organic and sustainably made products on their shelves, and a lot of companies are just responding to consumer demand. In 1999, no hybrid vehicles were sold in the United States, and now we've got 13 models to choose from.