Sometimes, it seems harder than ever to be green. The decision to buy organic food, ethical clothing and environmentally friendly products may seem clear, yet the industry has received so many knocks recently, it's hard to choose the right path.
The leak of emails from East Anglia University seemed to pour doubt on the extent of global warming; research has shown that conventionally farmed food has as many nutrients as organic; Government advertisements about climate change have been criticised for seeming too partisan. With these issues proclaimed loudly in the media, we could be excused for giving up the struggle to become greener and more environmentally aware.
The good news is that, as with many stories there are two sides, and there are more reasons than ever for choosing environmentally and ethically. Luckily, there are plenty of companies bringing quality products to shops and websites across the country. So shake off your winter blues and make your life green.
A holistic approach
One of the best arguments for choosing ethical and green products is that they offer holistic benefits for you and the planet. Generally, those who sell green products will consider every aspect of its manufacture – sourcing, packaging, recyclability, transport, employment and so on. This means we all benefit from this attention to detail.
Many product areas are showing great foresight; ethical fashion is being espoused by many big-name companies, green household products are on the shelves of every supermarket and green gifts and flowers are easy to find. Banking and investments can be chosen for ethical policies, energy can be bought from companies investing in renewables, Fairtrade flowers can be sent to loved ones, travel emissions can be avoided or offset with the help of green travel companies. For those who care about our children's future, the choices of green and ethical products and services have never been better or easier to find.
One of the great achievements of the green movement is that fairly traded produce, once a niche market, is now stocked in almost every supermarket and many smaller outlets. Fair trade, where producers are paid a fair price for their produce and profits are reinvested into the communities, is also becoming mainstream in multinational companies; Fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate are available from household names, who recognise the power of the green pound and take corporate social responsibility seriously.
There are many reasons to choose organic food over its conventionally farmed alternatives besides vitamin and mineral content. Although many were startled by research in 2009 that showed organic food has the same nutritional value as non-organic, I suspect that many, like me, choose organic food for their families for many other reasons besides this.
Intensive farming employs the frequent use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides that can have a devastating effect on local wildlife and plants. It can also affect our health, and several studies have shown that traces of pesticides are found in our bodies. A survey on pesticide poisoning in Nicaragua in November 2008 (reported in the British Medical Journal) showed that a significant number of farm workers were at acute risk of poisoning.
Conversely, studies of children who eat an organic diet conducted by the University of Washington in 2003 showed that this group had pesticide levels six times lower than children on "conventional" diets. Worryingly, despite evidence that the use of hormones can lead to cancers, intensively farmed animals are routinely given growth hormones – which can end up in our bodies. Organic farmers view the welfare and health of their animals as being of primary importance and avoid the unnecessary use of antibiotics and growth hormones.
A choice of organic fruit and vegetables and free-range, organic meat, fish, poultry and dairy products is now easily available and affordable. Look for food that is grown locally to you whenever possible, and take advantage of box schemes and farmers' markets which bring locally grown, seasonal, organic food to your door. It won't have sat on a supermarket shelf for days, will have low food miles and will be the freshest, most nutritious food around. If local produce isn't available (bananas for example) opt for Fairtrade and always read labels to ensure you're informed about where your food comes from.
Growing your own has never been more popular. A 2009 survey by the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners showed there are 49 people waiting for every 100 allotments in England – compared with four people per 100 plots in 1996. Raising your own crops, even keeping your own chickens for freshly laid eggs, means you are confident of where and how your food has been produced.
Every room green
Products to clean your home and clothes have become increasingly chemical-based over the past century; many ingredients have a detrimental effect on our health and our world. Many of our favourite cleaning products contain benzene, which is toxic to inhale and a carcinogen, phosphates, which damage river and marine life and naphtha, which is a central nervous system depressant. Take a look at your kitchen cleanser or toilet cleaner to see how many chemical ingredients it contains.
It's time to choose green products, which clean just as well but rely on natural, old-fashioned ingredients. Look for those with no artificial perfumes or colours which might harm your skin, are not tested on animals, are packaged in recyclable containers and are sold in large, refillable packs.
Most major supermarkets and online delivery stores now stock green alternatives, including own-brand. Look out also for natural air fresheners, degradable bin bags and eco gadgets such as magnetic toilet blocks, which prevent the build-up of limescale.
Another way to green your home is to examine every use of energy. Install energy meters to see which appliances soak up power, buy energy-efficient gadgets, insulate, don't leave appliances on standby and look into buying your electricity and gas from companies investing in renewable energy.
Every year UK consumers spend about £5bn on cosmetics and toiletries. What we put on our bodies ends up in them, and chemical-loaded products can have a detrimental effect on health. A quick look at the label will show ingredients such as sodium lauryl sulphate, parabens and petrolatum, which can cause allergies and irritations and leave the skin dry, are ironically loved by the cosmetics industry.
Instead, discover the wealth of organic, natural body and hair products and cosmetics. To be sure you are getting truly organic products, look for the Soil Association logo. Look also for Fair trade products, such as soaps containing olive oil from Palestine or shea butter from Africa.
On the outside
The fashion industry is catching up with environmental issues – some designers won't use animal products and many companies are choosing organic cotton, as conventionally grown cotton is one of the most sprayed crops in the world, leading to vast environmental damage. There are lots of boutique Fair trade clothes retailers, ensuring those making these garments get a share in the profits. Many sell online and you can also find them at eco and green festivals and fairs.
It is also easier than ever to find good alternatives to leather and animal products, such as faux leather, hemp and canvas, and to choose natural fibres rather than man-made polyesters and other petrochemical-derived fabrics. Natural, rather than artificial, dyes are having a renaissance and an increasing awareness of ethics in the fashion industry means many companies ensure they do not buy from countries or factories where underage or sweated labour is rife.
A clean future
Mahatma Gandhi said: "Become the change you seek in the world." The path towards a better, less-polluted planet is achievable, and every one of us can, and should, have an impact on our planet's future by choosing all our household products wisely. If you want to explore ways to bring greener products into your life, it has never been easier.