Combating a number of medical problems, including chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and severe reactions to chemicals and artificial products, Kimberly Button decided to adopt eco-friendly living habits in 2001, which not only improved her health but also paid off financially. She started using natural cleaners like vinegar and baking soda, which meant no harmful chemicals and no fragrance residues. She also gave up sodas and prepared drinks and began drinking only water.
A lot has changed in the 12 years since Button, a freelance journalist based in an Orlando, Fla., and author of "The Everything Guide to a Healthy Home," modified her lifestyle. Over the past decade, enhanced technology and growing consumer demand for natural products and organic foods have transformed the way many U.S. manufacturers do business. Even the razor business has gone green: Schick, for example, now sells a $10 "intuition naturals sensitive care razor," with a shaving solid that's made from natural Aloe and Vitamin E. The product's packaging is manufactured with no artificial colors and is 100 percent recyclable.
As Richard Kujawski, managing editor of LivingGreenMag.com, puts it, "Living green has turned the corner from a fad or a vestige of the hippy days."
Still, Brian Keane, author of "Green Is Good: Save Money, Make Money, and Help Your Community Profit From Clean Energy," says some people worry about the costs associated with sustainable living. But he says many homeowners don't realize how much energy and money they can save just by reducing "phantom load" – the energy an appliance or electronic device uses even when it's turned off. According to Cornell University, leaving items such as televisions, cell phone chargers, microwaves and coffee makers plugged in year-round can add around $200 to your annual energy bill.
Aside from switching off appliances, there are plenty of green consumer behaviors that don't require large financial sacrifices. Here are some easy, effective ways to live an eco-friendly lifestyle without wrecking your budget:
Shop smart for fruits and veggies. Some foods are worth buying organic. Fruits and vegetables such as apples, grapes, potatoes, spinach and cucumbers are on the Environmental Working Group's 2013 "dirty dozen" list – meaning, according to the environmental health research and advocacy organization, they're high in pesticide residues. As such, buying those items organic may be better for your health. The EWG's "clean fifteen" list contains produce that's generally safe to purchase without shelling out extra for organic, including onions, mushrooms, pineapples, sweet potatoes and mangos.
Renée Loux, an eco-advisor for spas, restaurants and hotels and host of the television show "It's Easy Being Green," says more retail chains like Safeway are producing organic items in-house, offering an alternative to pricey organic brand names. (According to the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada, organic fruits and vegetables can cost anywhere from 10 percent to 174 percent more than conventional produce.)
Grow your own food. If buying organic foods isn't financially feasible, try out your green thumb. Growing your own produce can help cut costs, but setting up and maintaining a garden takes work. Be prepared to devote time to preparing the soil, irrigating and fertilizing your crops and dealing with pests. Such labor can prove costly for some if it eats up too much time.
If you decide to grow your own produce, also keep in mind what fruits and vegetables are suitable for your climate. Button says growing cold-weather crops like broccoli in Florida, for example, isn't good for water conservation, as they'll require watering twice a day.
Farmers markets may be a reasonably priced option if you don't want to get your hands dirty.
Don't be wasteful when eating out. Going green doesn't have to mean giving up meals at your favorite restaurants, but Button says there are several eco-friendly practices to follow when eating out. Bring Tupperware to take home leftovers, as Styrofoam boxes are difficult to recycle. Tell your server ahead of time if you're not going to eat a side dish that comes with your meal, so the food doesn't go to waste. And one of the easiest behaviors to change: If you're going to leave the restaurant shortly, don't let the server refill your water glass.