Julie Nelsen

Recently, I had the pleasure of working on a project for clients who are very conscious about our impact on the earth. It has been both a challenge and a pleasure to research selections for their home that are positive choices for the client and the environment. In this case, not only do I need to find items that have “green” attributes, but I also need to make selections that work for the client’s asthma and allergies.

Through my research, I have developed some opinions and gained some insights into terminology used in the industry called “green-washing.” Green-washing is a relatively new verb meaning “The act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.” It is evident, once again, that the principles of “buyer beware” come into play; consumers need to know what they are purchasing. What may look like a good choice may be, as my mother would have called it, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

So how do we as consumers, make the right choices?

The answer is, “Carefully.” Take care in making a choice. Be conscious of what you are purchasing. Consider what you want from the product, the underlying principles of your purchase and what message you want to send to the world — or at least to those around you.  

Let’s take a dining chair, for an example. One could buy a chair that is an antique, a chair that isn’t antique that has already been used, a new dining room chair that is made from wood certified by The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or a brand new dining room chair made of painted medium density fiberboard (MDF). Which of these is the best choice? It depends. It depends on the buyer, their budget and their interpretation of environmental impact. All of these options have green attributes.  

The antique has lasted for a while, so it has probably overcome the first obstacle of being durable enough, but it is most likely more expensive, otherwise it would not have earned the “antique” label.

The non-antique, reused chair could be great option for the right price and the right style —  again, if it is in good shape, it also is most likely durable enough to be the best choice for a dining room chair.

The new dining room chair made of FSC certified wood is also a great choice. It may cost more than one that is non-FSC certified, but you know where it came from and that that organization is making choices that are positive for our environment.  

The other new chair, made from MDF, could also be a good choice. MDF is strong, versatile in design, less expensive than “real” wood and can potentially be recycled. However, it is often made with binders and resins that may not be environmentally safe. Other natural binders can be used but formaldehyde-based products are still more often used in making MDF. Products containing formaldehyde will continue to off-gas for years, impacting the air quality of the home.

You need to know what is in the products you purchase. Ask questions about your purchase.

It can become a case of what the least awful choice happens to be. As the designer, I need to let you know what the options are; as a consumer, you need to be aware of what matters to you.

For many Americans, it appears a more environmentally healthy mindset is on the horizon. A study conducted by Cone Communications recently revealed that 71 percent of Americans claim they now consider the environment when making purchasing decisions. To help us avoid becoming “green-washed,” the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently released new “Green Guides” designed to help marketers and companies be truthful and non-deceptive about their green initiatives.

As even more people become aware of these issues, more people will demand environmentally friendly products. Manufacturers will begin to pay attention and put research and development into areas that will give us safer choices, but only when consumers demand it.

Circle Pines resident Julie Nelsen, an instructor at St. Catherine University, designs for Twin Cities interior design firm Live, Love and Design. Reach her at julie@liveloveanddesign.com.

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