Check the back of nearly any conventional cleaning product, and you are confronted with an entire paragraph of confusing words for unknown chemicals – sometimes, hundreds of them.  It would take a huge amount of research to know which of those chemicals could be harmful to you, your family, or the environment.

Using conventional cleaning products in small amounts, and in well-ventilated areas, likely won’t cause any harm to the individual.  However, when we clean our homes we typically use a whole range of products for specific purposes – glass cleaners, countertop cleaners, floor cleaners, shower cleaners… the list goes on.  The more chemicals we use in our homes, the more exposure we receive to them, and that can add up over time, week in and week out.

Many conventional cleaners contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.  We’ve written before about VOCs in paint.  VOCs are the source of the headache-inducing chemical smell that is produced when using a cleaner at home.  These chemical compounds are used to cheaply improve the performance of a product, but can have serious consequences for human health – they have been linked to neurological disorders and kidney failure in laboratory animals, just to name a few consequences.  VOCs linger in the residue of cleaning products, even when they’re not visible – they continued to be inhaled even after cleaning is finished.  As Grist reports, home air fresheners contain significant amounts of VOCs and have been linked to a 25% increase in headaches and 19% more occurrences of depression in homes where they are used, versus homes where they are not.

Even smaller amounts of cleaner can have detrimental effects on the environment.  Dishwashing detergents often contain phosphates, which soften water and are a cheap way to make dish detergents more effective.   But the environmental cost is substantial.  When phosphates enter the watershed they enrich the water with nutrients that algae feed on, producing huge “blooms” of algae that consume all oxygen in the surrounding water.  Water that is depleted of oxygen – or that is hypoxic – is uninhabitable by most marine life.  The consequence is huge “dead zones” where there is no sea life, apart from algal blooms.  One of the largest and most infamous dead zone is in the Gulf of Mexico, which is fed by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from the Mississippi River.  While that dead zone is fed largely by agricultural runoff, home fertilizers – and home cleaners – also contribute.

this graphic, from the new york times, depicts the hypoxic zone in the gulf of mexico -- a phenomenon produced, in part, by the runoff of phosphates, often found in conventional cleaners

There are more environmental consequences than hypoxia: conventional cleaners use chemicals that can disrupt the endocrine systems of marine life; some chemicals can affect the alkalinity of water, harming marine organisms; and others contain chemical compounds such as DDBSA that are corrosive to metal and organic tissue, including human tissue.  If cleaning chemicals can produce these harmful effects on marine life, are they products that the consumer wants in their home – that not only release the chemicals into the home environment when they are use (and inhaled!), but linger and offgas for indeterminate amounts of time?

For the sake of personal health and the environment, then, it becomes imperative to use green cleaning products, and other green products that are free of the kinds of pollutants and toxins which poison our bodies and land.

Fortunately, numerous alternatives are available.  Some are more effective – both in terms of cleaning power and in healthfulness – than others.  Some, in particular, are pure greenwash – while they profess to be “all-natural,” they are indeed chemical and potentially dangerous.  There are no federal criteria to regulate products advertized as “all-natural” and packaging can therefore be terrifically misleading.  Some “all-natural” cleaners are made from petroleum-derived products – all-natural because petroleum is naturally-occurring.

So, we should choose green cleaners because they are kinder on our health, our homes, and our environment.  And we should ensure we choose green products that are legitimately green, and not just greenwash.  There are, fortunately, truly ecologically-sound alternatives available to the consumer.

These products, contrasted to their conventional counterparts, are plant-derived, rather than petroleum-derived; they are biodegradable, meaning they won’t linger in waterways and contribute to hypoxia; and they are effective, meaning the consumer does not have to sacrifice performance for health and environmental benefits.

Green Depot carries a huge catalogue of green products, and produces its own line of green cleaners (locally-produced in the New York City area).  They are even refillable at our station on the Bowery – meaning you won’t even have to recycle your old bottles.

photo credit to flickr user hypoxia&eutrophication.

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As we try to travel in greener directions through the wild, wild west of the consumer market, there are plenty of markers along the way to guide us–in the form of eco-labels, those little green symbols printed and/or stuck on nearly everything you can buy these days. There are symbols indicating that a product is organic, chlorine-free or grown upside down without soil; that it was made by people paid a fair wage or by chickens allowed to go for walks in the sun. If there’s an environmental issue worth considering, there’s an eco-label related to it—which on one hand is fantastic, but on the other… Well, it gets to be a bit much. After a while, all the symbols seem to fade into a solicitous green haze with about as much meaning as the words “As seen on TV!” on the box of the latest trendy gadget. And what’s worse, some of the labels don’t even mean what they appear to. Who would guess that their “free range” chicken might have never even seen the open sky? And others don’t mean very much at all, like organic labels on fruits and vegetables that aren’t normally grown with pesticides to begin with.

But we’re not likely to see any fewer eco-labels anytime soon–we’ll probably only see more, and some of them are genuinely useful indicators of qualities you might actually care about. So with that in mind, here’s a brief run-down of a few of the most commonly seen eco-labels and what they mean, then a list of places where you can learn more about these online and look up the rest of them, too.

EnergyStar is probably the most often-seen eco-label. EnergyStar is a joint program of the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and the U.S. Department of Energy, and it awards the EnergyStar label to household products, homes and nonresidential buildings that meet its energy efficiency requirements. Its standards are lower than those required for LEED certification, but it’s a decent start.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a program run by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization with no government affiliation. LEED provides third-party verification that a building project followed green building procedures, meets energy efficient performance standards, and is a health place to live or work. The main criteria for evaluation are sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, the use of sustainable materials (e.g. low-VOC paint, green insulation) , and a healthy indoor environment. The program is based on a system that awards a silver, gold, or platinum certification level, based on the number of points a project was able to win by addressing the various criteria. Certification is entirely voluntary.

USDA Organic This label indicates that the product meets the National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards for using the word “organic” in its labeling. These standards vary for the different products that are eligible for the label, which include not only food but personal care products as well. But most require the absence of synthetic fertilizers, conventional pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones and sewage sludge in the production process. You can find a table outlining the different requirements for different products here.

Fair Trade This symbol indicates that the product has been certified by TransFair USA, which is the only U.S. member of FLO (Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International, the Germany-based umbrella organization for a group of 20 international fair trade certifying nonprofits). Fair Trade Certification standards help farmers and farm workers to lift themselves out of poverty by investing in their farms and communities, protecting the environment, and helping them developing the business skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace. The label signifies that the product was grown by small-scale farmers who are democratically organized, either in a co-ops or unions; that the buyer paid up to 60% of the cost of the raw materials in advance, that a fair wage was paid and no child labor was used in production, that none of the 10 worst pesticides were used in the growing process, and that the buyer paid additional premiums to go toward services to support and develop the farm community.

FSC The FSC label indicates, essentially, that a wood product was grown in a forest that is being managed responsibly and sustainably. The FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), certifies forest managers and manufacturers of wood products that it determines are managing forests and using forest products responsibly and sustainably. Among their major concerns are not allowing logging practices to destroy forests, protecting the habitats of endangered wildlife, and making sure the profits from commercial forest endeavors are shared fairly with communities living in the forests. The FSC is not affiliated with any government, is a nonprofit organization, and certification is entirely voluntary.

For more info on these and literally hundreds more eco-labels, see these links:

Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices Eco-Label page

The Global Ecolabel Index

Inhabititat’s Eco Labels 101

Top image courtesy of Shutterstock

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Part of being an environmentally- conscious consumer is knowing where, and from whom, we source our products.  This week, we had the pleasure of speaking with Kevin Stasi, the sales manager of Ivy Coatings — one of Green Depot’s suppliers that produces low- and VOC-free paints.  As we’ve written about before, “new paint smell” is actually the odor of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) offgassing into the air we breathe.  VOCs can cause headaches and nausea, damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system, and some are known to be carcinogenic.  For these and other reasons, we are glad to carry Ivy Coatings’ products and to have had the opportunity to speak with Kevin, who has been with Ivy Coatings since its very beginning.

Green Depot: To get started, we were wondering if you could tell us a little about Ivy Coatings – how you got started, and your outlook on the environmentally-friendly paints you supply.
Kevin Stasi: Well, Ivy Coatings has actually been around for a while – probably five to six years.  Three or four years ago we began targeting commercial and residential customers, rather than governmental and institutional customers, who were our initial focus.  From the very beginning, we were reaching out and searching for quality vendors, and as we’ve pushed out towards the mainstream – commercial and residential customers – we’ve continued searching for good partners.

GD: Was your goal when you began to produce specifically environmentally-friendly paints?
KS: When we began, our goal was to develop a good-quality paint first; then we focused on the VOC-free aspect of our product.  We thought this out from the beginning.  We didn’t want to rush to market with an inferior product, and to do the same thing as the big guys like Sherwin-Williams or Benjamin Moore – some of these companies have made improvements and produced elite VOC-free paints, but builders and designers complained that they were milky or chalky, and were using 30% more product to do the same job that standard paints would.  So we started out with quality in mind.

Some of these elite environmental paints, as well, weren’t “true” VOC-free.  They contained 30 to 60 grams of VOC per liter.  This wasn’t what the consumer was really looking for.

GD: So you began with quality in mind; when did you begin to think more about the VOC content of your product?
KS: Our product has gone through some adjustment.  When we were in a more institutional, rather than residential, phase, our product was good quality, so what we wanted to do was lower the VOC content and not lose any quality.  The concept was to make the product appeal to architects, designers, and builders and be able to say it was good quality, as well as VOC-free.

But we not only wanted to say it was good quality, but that the price point was also good for homeowners.  In the market, VOC-free paint can run up to forty, fifty, or sixty dollars per gallon.  This was not good for institutional builders, who have to buy in huge amounts.  For the customer, we wanted to be able to say that there would be no smell, and to wipe out the extra cost for VOC-free paint.  We want to be distinct as a marketing decision, but also communicate our core reasons for the brand: quality that you can feel good about, with no offgassing.

GD: What do you consider to be some of the main benefits of choosing VOC-free paints over standard ones?
KS: Well, there is no smell when it’s applied.  Of course, that’s very subjective and when you first open the can you might notice a slight odor.  But when I take our product to trade shows and open a can at the booth, 99% of people can’t smell anything.  When you apply the paint, though, there is no smell and you can’t even tell that the painters are painting.  You know first thing when painters are using standard paints – but not with Ivy, even when it is wet, and even during application.

A huge benefit is that because there is no smell, there is a quick return to occupancy.  A major drawback of standard paints, especially in commercial offices, is that people move out to avoid the fumes, and employees call out sick to avoid the odor.  Some people are very sensitive to that smell.  Ivy Coatings doesn’t have that.

GD: What do you consider the major environmental benefits of your paints?
KS: There’s a lot!  From the immediate sensitivity to the health benefits alone.  That’s for all VOC products.  Anything that offgasses, including furniture and carpets, people are inhaling.  This can lead to serious health conditions and even cancer.

Even if a paint stops smelling, they continue to offgas for years.  So now, the office or even home, with a carpet, furniture, becomes a mixture or soup of offgassing.  We always push to be as clean as possible.  Knowing that the space you’re working in is healthy and is a properly-ventilated space can increase productivity, even in the home.

GD: You mentioned earlier that you want your product to be accessible to the mainstream.  What’s your approach to that?
KS: Over the last five years, costs between standard and green products has begun to shrink.  Ivy tries to make that gap as small as possible, but the gap has decreased across the board, especially for construction materials which are about the same now.  Seven years ago, the emphasis for construction materials was on recycled materials, but then we realized being environmentally-conscious went beyond that to health – so new features, like daylighting and toxin-free products allow owners to lease at higher rates, to rent at higher rates, and to rent out fast.  Customers see that by going green, their energy savings can be 20-30% less than standard.  People are looking at their buildings, and seeing that financially, going green can help people save money, and that is what really is compelling.

GD: Thanks a lot for the opportunity to speak with you!

Ivy Coatings produces a full line of low-VOC and VOC-free paints.  They showcase their products at Green Depot’s flagship store, at 222 Bowery in New York, NY.

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While it’s one thing (and a great thing) to talk about green building, it’s not every day that we meet people who are actually doing it on a grand scale. So to bring a fresh dose of reality to the conversation, we tracked down someone who not only talks the green talk but is decidedly walking the green walk, too. Here’s a short Q&A session with Thom Woglom, a green contractor in Warwick, New York. Thom is a regular Green Depot customer, and with 25 years of experience as a general contractor, he is now the owner and president of Greenway Technologies of Warwick–a contracting company specializing in green building. He kindly took the time to answer some basic questions about the business for us.

Green Depot: Thom, what are some of the reasons your customers have given for choosing a green contractor and green building materials, as opposed to going the standard route?
Thom Woglom:
Well, the community of Warwick is special in that it’s both very rural and is made up of a lot of progressive thinkers. So there’s a big emphasis on nature here, and preserving it. The environment is very much on people’s minds these days–there’s a huge amount of interest in green products. But beyond that, our company (my son is my lead foreman) is unique in that we also offer an electronics-recycling service to the community–and a lot of our green building customers come to us by way of that. We think the key to expanding the green movement lies within forming a sense of community around it, because the biggest changes are happening within communities and are growing from the ground up. So we provide a service for our community that helps it become more green-conscious, and as an added benefit, it brings our green business new interest and customers.

GD: What are some products you use often that you order from Green Depot?
TW: We use a lot of your National Fiber cellulose insulation, your Solatube ventilation and daylighting systems, and your Complete Radiant subflooring. We’re about to start working on a house that will have all of those products and many more–they client is going all-out, with a rainwater containment and reuse system, a freshwater swimming pool, wind power, and even a Permaculture site design.

GD: That’s fantastic! Hopefully one day every house will be like that… But are there any areas of the house where that client chose a non-green option? And if so, why?
TW: Well, one of the reasons we’ve heard most often from clients when they don’t want to go with a green choice is concerns about reliability. People haven’t seen most of these new green technologies in action over a long enough time to feel 100% comfortable relying on them yet. This client’s way of addressing those concerns was to have a backup to each of the major systems. So in addition to solar power and heating, he’s installing traditional fossil-fueled electricity and a furnace, too, just in case the greener systems fail (which, of course, we don’t believe they will). It’s an interesting approach. Many clients are also put off by the pricing for green systems, which are generally higher than what they find at a mass-market discount warehouse, but might not be too much higher than non-discounted traditional systems. But price isn’t the main concern for this particular client.

GD: What about the installation of green systems–is it any more difficult or easier than installing traditional heating, cooling and insulation?
TW: It’s all in how you think about it. Any new system requires learning something new, but the basic tools and techniques of building and installation stay the same. As it happens, some of the older workers who might be resistant to learning new methods are now aging out of the workforce, and we’re taking the opportunity to teach the new systems to the new generation of workers from the very beginning. But ultimately, regardless of age, if you’re willing to learn and read instructions, green building really isn’t any more difficult.

GD: Thanks for sharing your experience and expertise, Thom!

Thom Woglom and his company are currently building their area’s first interactive showroom for green building and landscaping, which will feature everything from super-insulated windows and low-flow toilets to compost makers and edible landscaping.

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Many of our readers are familiar with the two most popular rating systems for how energy-efficient a given home is: The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star for Homes (the most popular) and the US Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes.

Both require much greater energy efficiency than traditional American building methods even come close to offering–and for that alone they are invaluable. But an organization called the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), featured in a recent New York Times article and based in Urbana, Illinois, is setting a new, much higher bar for energy conservation: By making a home’s envelope close to completely airtight, making the most of the sun’s natural heat by way of big windows facing south and using a combination of Institute-mandated building techniques and green products to keep that heat in the house when it’s wanted (and let it out when it isn’t), a house that passes the Institute’s certification process uses on average 75 to 95 percent less energy than most new buildings built in the US!

Building a home to the Institute’s standards is somewhat more expensive than traditional building, though the extra expense is often more than offset by the savings from lower energy bills. But because most low-income people can’t afford to spend an extra cent more than necessary on building, but stand to benefit from green housing as much as anyone else, Habitat for Humanity has begun to experiment with Passive Solar housing itself.

H4H Vermont’s Green Valley chapter is currently building the first Passive Solar house in New England, on a city-donated plot in the colonial village of Charlotte. And the house is not only PHIUS-certified, but pre-fab, too–it’s made of modular units that are made in a factory and then trucked in and assembled in near-complete condition. This way of building saves vast amounts of construction waste and goes a long way to protect the natural environment of the building site. The house will be the first pre-fab, modular Passive Solar house in the country, and hopefully will kick off a long-lasting trend in this kind of homebuilding.

The project is in collaboration with the nonprofit Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, builder Preferred Building Systems, Charlotte-based passive-house specialist Peter Schneider, and Boston-based architect JB Clancy.  The house was completed this month, and a family of four is expected to move in by Christmas.

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If you’ve been in the market for paint lately, you’re surely seen and heard the marketing noise about low- and zero-VOC paints. You know it’s something green, and clearly VOCs are something bad, so you’re intrigued and may even have bought some of this paint by now…. But you may also be wondering: What, exactly, are VOCs?

Well, as it turns out, there is no single definition of a VOC that is agreed upon by regulating agencies worldwide. But the letters stand for Volatile Organic Compounds, which the EPA used to refer to as  reactive organic gasses (ROGs), if that’s any help. Some occur in nature; others are man-made.

In the world of green products, VOC usually refers to a man-made, liquid solvent that gives off toxic fumes. You can often smell the VOCs in paint and other liquids you find in hardware stores–it’s that not-so-nice, often headache-inducing smell you get from wet paint, turpentine, varnish, and products in that vein. But a substance can continue to emit VOCs even after it has dried and you no longer smell anything, often for years at a time.

This is why VOCs are such a big deal when it comes to paint. According to the EPA,  indoor air pollution is one of the top 5 hazards to human heath–and VOCs are a major contributor to it. The EPA recommends the use of low- and zero-VOC paints, and it defines low-VOC as having 250 grams or fewer VOCs per liter. GreenSeal has an even lower limit of 50 grams for low-VOC paints.

Things become tricky, however, when color is added to a base: The VOC rating applies only to the base color, not whatever pigments might be added. So be sure to find out whether your tints are low-VOC, as well.

Then there’s zero-VOC, which is of course the best option. Most zero-VOC paints actually do have very low levels of VOCs, as the EPA requires only that they have less than 5 grams per liter to carry that label. But truly zero-VOC paints do exist–to find them, you simply have to know what you’re looking for on the label.

To start you out in the right direction, Green Depot’s house line of paints and primers, Ivy Coatings, is truly zero-VOC, even when tinted. And it’s available in a huge range of colors, including a set of four subtly different premixed shades of white–for just the right white, which can be more important than many people realize.

Green Depot also carries a number of other low- and zero-VOC coating options, including non-toxic Ana Sova Food Paint (which really is made of mostly food-grade ingredients, including milk proteins), Yolo Colorhouse paints, and a range of not only paints but wood stains, polyurethanes, concrete stains and more from AMF and EcoProCote.

Yellow paint photo credit: Even Roberts/Flickr.com

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