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What Does Green Mean?: Know Your Labels

When Mount Holly resident Lisa Frame became a mother seven years ago, she struggled to find stores that sold organic and hormone-free baby food for her son. She also had trouble finding stores that sold unbleached tissue and personal care products that wouldn't trigger her allergies.

Not anymore.

In the last two years, Frame has bought organic cotton pajamas from Wal-Mart, unchlorinated laundry detergent from Amazon.com and organic produce from a variety of grocery stores across the Charlotte region.

"It's a great thing," said Frame, 34. "I like it more now that I can get these products here rather than waiting until I go visit family members in D.C."

Frame is part of a growing number of consumers taking advantage of the "greening" of retail. As energy prices rise and recalls trigger questions about food safety, more stores are offering organic and "natural" food and eco-friendly products to tap into consumer concerns about their health and the environment.

"If (retailers) can pick up on a trend consumers are already thinking about ... it helps them build traffic," said Charles Bodkin, associate professor of marketing at the Belk College of Business at UNC Charlotte. "It's a trend I think is here to stay."

But what does "going green" really mean? And do consumers get the benefits they expect? MoneyWise looked into several categories.

Food

Organic and "natural" foods have been around for years, but more mainstream grocery stores are carrying the products. Use of the term "organic" on food is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and hefty fines can be levied on companies that violate labeling laws. There is no federal regulation of the use of the term "natural" or "free range."

* Fruits and Vegetables

The term "certified organic" refers to produce that has been grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, genetically modified organisms or irradiation. The soil must also have been free of those materials for three years prior to growing. To be labeled certified organic, food must come from a farm that has been certified by a government-sanctioned agency.

Because the certification fees can be costly, some farmers who practice organic methods -- but are not certified -- mark their products as "organically grown," said Joy Fanning, holistic consultant and educator for the Home Economist Market on South Boulevard. While these products may have been grown without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, they are not allowed to carry the USDA organic seal, she said.

* Meat, Poultry, Eggs & Dairy

To be labeled "organic," these foods must come from animals that have been given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed 100 percent organic feed and given access to the outdoors, according to the USDA. The Organic Consumers Association says a loophole in the federal law, however, has allowed some organic dairy farms to use cattle that may have grown up as calves on traditional feedlots where it is customary to use hormones and feed containing animal byproducts.

* Processed Foods

Products such as cereal, cookies or frozen pizza can be labeled as being "made with organic ingredients" if they contain at least 70 percent organically grown materials. Products simply labeled "organic" must contain at least 95 percent organically grown ingredients. Products labeled "100 percent organic" must contain all organic ingredients, excluding water and salt, according to the USDA.

Clothing

Once limited to niche boutiques, organic cotton clothing is popping up at a variety of mainstream retailers. The apparel is made with cotton that has been grown on organic farms.

* Going green: Advocates of organic cotton say it is friendlier to the environment because it is grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

* Watchdogs: The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets and enforces the standards for organic farms.

* Price Check: Baby George organic boys newborn bug romper, $7.92 at Wal-Mart; 46 percent higher than the Disney boys newborn romper, $5.44.

* What they don't tell you: The organic label applies only to the growing methods of the cotton in the garment, not the way it is processed, said Kristi Wiedemann, science and policy analyst for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. That means the product may still have been finished using dyes and other chemicals. Also, just because a garment contains organic cotton doesn't mean it doesn't also have synthetic material. The product should specify how much organic cotton is in the garment.

House & Garden

"Organic" garden soil, "all natural" insecticides and a larger variety of "free and clear" detergents have recently begun appearing in grocery stores and garden centers.

* Going green: In general, consumers using these products want to cut back on chemicals that may be harmful to wildlife or groundwater. Others worry that traditional detergents and cleaners leave chemical residue on dishes and countertops that could be harmful if ingested. "Organic" garden soils claim to be safe for gardeners because they use poultry litter or other nonsynthetic fertilizers.

* Watchdogs: Experts said product claims of "natural," "free and clear" and "organic soil" are not regulated by the government.

* Price check: Miracle-Gro Organic Choice potting soil 16 ounce $5.79 at Lowe's; Miracle-Gro regular potting soil $5.29. (9 percent difference)

* What they don't tell you: Products that claim to be "all natural" or "free and clear" typically are used to indicate a product is free of dyes that trigger the most common allergies. But there is no government regulation of those terms, and the products may still contain synthetic materials or chemicals.

Appliances & Electronics

Devices claiming to be energy efficient have surged in popularity over the past several years. Originally found in washers and refrigerators, stores now sell Energy Star lightbulbs and are beginning to offer consumer electronics such as televisions.

* Going green: The average home that spends $1,900 a year on energy bills can save $80 a year in energy costs by switching to energy-efficient appliances, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. If just 1 in 10 homes used energy-efficient appliances, the DOE says, it would have the environmental benefit of planting 1.7 million new acres of trees.

* Watchdogs: All major home appliances must meet energy-conservation standards set by the DOE. But appliances labeled "Energy Star" are government-certified as beating that standard, using as much as 50 percent less energy than their standard counterparts.

* Price check: GE 21.7 cu. ft. refrigerator $898 for non-Energy Star; $948 for comparable Energy Star model at Lowe's (6 percent higher).

* What they don't tell you: Some concern has arisen over the intensely marketed compact fluorescent lamp lightbulbs. Although the bulbs use 75 percent less energy than regular incandescent bulbs, they contain mercury, which can be harmful to people and pets if the bulbs break and aren't disposed of properly.

Body Care & Cosmetics

A host of lotions, shampoos and cosmetics claiming to be "organic" or "all natural" have hit the market in recent years.

* Going green: Traditional body care products often contain parabens, a widely used group of chemical preservatives that critics believe contribute to allergies and breast cancer. "Organic" body care products claim to use ingredients that are grown on organic farms. "All natural" products often claim to be free of harsh chemicals.

* Watchdogs: The safety and labeling of body-care products and cosmetics falls under the authority of U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Manufacturers are required to truthfully label their products and list ingredients in order of quantity.

* Price check: Jason fragrance-free deodorant, 2.5-ounce $6.49; Ban unscented deodorant, 2.6-ounce $3.49 at CVS (an 85 percent difference)

* What they don't tell you: These products are under intense criticism from many organic advocates. Cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA approval before they go on the market, with the exception of color additives. Claims of "natural" also are not regulated. Consumers Union says unless a personal-care product consists primarily of organic agricultural ingredients, such as aloe vera gel, it's not worth the additional "organic" cost. The group said it has found "indiscriminate use" of synthetic ingredients and violations of food-labeling standards in many health care products labeled "organic."

Nichole Monroe Bell