Take bamboo flooring: Long the darling of eco fashionistas, thanks to its rapid renewability and good looks, bamboo has recently crossed over from the green ghetto to mainstream home design.
But is it really any eco-friendlier than garden-variety floors like oak or maple? After all, many bamboo floors contain glues that off-gas formaldehyde for years. And getting bamboo to U.S. markets involves transporting it halfway around the world, since most bamboo used for flooring is harvested and processed by low-wage workers in China—a country that Amnesty International denounces for its "serious and widespread human rights violations." On the other hand, bamboo can be harvested and replenished in five years or less.
Making environmentally responsible choices has always involved uneasy tradeoffs, and it grows more bedeviling each year as companies amp up the green hype in pursuit of our greenbacks. A good way to start a sustainable search is by looking through green-building product directories, such as GreenSpec, from the publisher of Environmental Building News.
When evaluating a product ask these questions:
1. Is it an environmentally preferable material? Think salvaged, recycled, renewable, or agricultural waste.
2. Does it reduce risks to human health or the environment compared to conventional products? Hardwood flooring that’s prefinished under factory-controlled conditions keeps floor-finishing fumes out of your home.
3. Does it reduce fossil-fuel or water consumption compared to alternative products? Laptop computers use 90 percent less electricity than desktop models.
4. When you’re done with it, can it be reused, recycled, or composted rather than landfilled or incinerated? Buying a bookshelf needn’t involve a lifetime commitment, but choosing a well-designed, high-quality product makes it more likely that you’ll hand it down rather than consign it to the garbage truck’s maw.
In the future, perhaps products will bear a universal eco label—a standardized tag that serves as a yardstick for comparing a product’s impact on human health, social equity, and a host of environmental concerns, from global warming to deforestation. But for now, consumers must make do with the handful of programs that attempt to identify certain products with a green edge.