When It Pays to Go Green

A guide to whether environmental benefits justify the extra expense.

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Going green sometimes comes with a price: Organic vegetables can cost twice as much as their mainstream counterparts. So when is going green really worth it? We asked some top environmental experts to weigh in—and their answers might surprise you. They say that while spending extra is often justified, you can almost always find a cheaper alternative.

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For home improvement projects, spending more can be better for the Earth. Diane MacEachern, author of Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World and creator of the Web site Big Green Purse, paid about $1,500 extra for hardwood floors made of Brazilian cherry wood that had been approved for sustainability by the Forest Stewardship Council when she renovated her house a few years ago. She also paid about $600 extra for paint that was free of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. But MacEachern says that choice actually saved her money because the lack of noxious chemicals meant that her family could stay in the house while it was being painted.

But there's also a cheaper option: MacEachern found carpeting made from recycled soda bottles, which looks and feels just like regular carpeting. "I looked at all these other options, and it turned out this was the easiest, cheapest, and quickest to install," says MacEachern.

"The greenest thing to do is as little as possible," says Maggie Wood, founder of the Jamesport, N.Y.-based Maggie Wood Design, a green home design consultancy. It's also usually the cheapest thing. For example, Wood explains, working with an existing house's footprint instead of knocking it down and starting from scratch is both more affordable and more environmentally friendly. She also recommends installing low-flow toilets and replacing light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights, both choices that save money in the long term.

When it comes to a big-ticket item such as kitchen cabinets, Wood often suggests that her clients look at purchasing "gently used" kitchen cabinets, which can be found through contractors or stores that sell salvaged pieces. Habitat for Humanity operates "ReStores" stocked with building materials that have been donated by contractors and other suppliers. (Proceeds support the nonprofit's work.)

When it comes to organic food, the high price tag often provides health benefits. Recent research suggests that organic food is also more healthful food. The Organic Center, a nonprofit that collects research about organics, reports that according to recent studies, organic foods are more nutritious than their nonorganic counterparts 61 percent of the time. "Our position is moving in the direction of organic food being more nutritious," says Joe Dickson, the quality standards coordinator for Whole Foods. Although the company used to shy away from making that claim, Dickson says it is becoming more willing to do so because of the growing number of studies in the area.

But there's also a cheaper option: While organic food tends to be more expensive, MacEachern recommends looking for other items to trim from your budget, such as bottled water, in order to fit it into your budget. "It doesn't make any sense to say, 'I can't spend $3 more on organic milk, but I'm spending $20 a week on bottled water,' " she says.

Plus, since food sellers have to adhere to certain rules in order to label their products as organic, the organic food (and clothing) sold at discount stores such as Wal-Mart is just as green as the stuff sold at a higher-priced boutique.

[For more, read "Go Green and Save Money."]

For personal hygiene and cleaning products, a higher price can mean fewer toxins. Jennifer Taggart, author of Smart Mama's Green Guide, suggests always checking out the ingredients of shampoo, body scrubs, and other products to avoid toxins, or shopping the organic aisle, where many of the products are made without those chemicals. But she says even products labeled "natural" can contain ingredients she tries to avoid, such as phthalates and parabens. (The Web site www.cosmeticsdatabase.com allows users to look up certain products to check for their level of toxicity.) Organic home cleaning products usually come without the powerful chemicals found in most mainstream cleaners, but they can also be more expensive.