Ever get the feeling that the green-products movement is blowing low-emission smoke in your eyes? Kristi Wiedemann knows. Her job is to separate the organic wheat from the chaff, culling the truly earth-loving products from the imposters.
As a science and policy analyst and writer for the web site GreenerChoices.org, Wiedemann, N02, has researched fair-trade coffee, earth-friendly cleaners and green building materials, among other things. She helped launch the site three years ago for the watchdog group Consumers Union, best known for its product-review publication Consumer Reports. The original CR is obsessed with product price and quality, and so is GreenerChoices, but with extra attention given to energy consumption, water use, toxins and biodegradability.
"There is no such thing as a 100-percent-green product," Wiedemann says. "So what we try to do is point out aspects of products that are a little bit better, that may save a little bit more energy."
Her own environmental philosophy is based in practicality. That comes in part from her father, a retired forester for the state of New York, who saw trees as a natural resource that should be wisely managed but still put to use.
"You can be anti-consumption," Wiedemann says, "or you can acknowledge that we all use products every day."
Getting the skinny on those products takes some research. "The more information I can find from government and academic studies, the better," Wiedemann says. She might call a municipality in California, where environmental regulations are usually ahead of the curve. Or consult a toxicology center at the University of Massachusetts. Or simply check the cleaning products aisle at her local Target to see which bottles read "Caution: eye irritant."
"It’s a bit of a challenge, just because there is so much emotion in environmental issues," she says. A package decorated with fields of grass may be appealing, but a lot of self-proclaimed earth-friendly products don’t have science to back them up.
On the other hand, Wiedemann says, "Instinctually, something may seem like it’s bad, but you may find out the benefits outweigh the risks." Consider the age-old disposable-vs.-cloth-diaper debate. In areas of the country where water is sparse, disposables can actually be the greener choice; washing cloth diapers can amount to using thousands of gallons of water annually.
Plenty of green products do live up to the hype. When Wiedemann went to Brazil to research the fair-trade coffee business, she saw that the fair-trade label has real meaning. "The farmers were getting a guaranteed price," she says. "They were able to send their children to school, to buy a storage facility, to band together to build a community."
Wiedemann started out studying the environment at the University of Vermont and the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Then she became interested in health, taking anatomy classes along with her botany classes. That intersection naturally led her to the Friedman School. After graduation, she worked as a freelance consultant for organic cotton companies. She saw the fields in India where the cotton was grown, the factory where it was sewn and printed, and the finished product at her local Whole Foods in New York City.
"I saw the benefits of buying that organic T-shirt and how it went all the way back to those farmers in India," she says. In both avoiding pesticides and getting higher prices for their products, "it was truly making their lives better."
Wiedemann has seen her share of "greenwashing," the term for marketing products as earthy-crunchy when they give little benefit to people or planet. But she’s optimistic that things are moving in the right direction.
"The environmental movement has been going on for a long time, decades now, and so far, I haven’t seen a lot of momentum," she says. "But I feel like now there is more, because corporate America is on board. The amount of media that is being generated around green, it’s frankly getting people to think about it. When they pick up a product, they may look a little more closely at it."