Question from G&G client: Any green suggestions/vendors that do closet organization? Brandy, Encino, CA

Hey Brandy,

Off the top of my head here is the low-down.

When thinking about doing “green” closets there are two things to consider since most closets are made from wood or wood products. 1) Is the wood/wood product harvested sustainably and 2) will the wood/wood product “off-gas” (emit harmful chemical odors into your breathing space). Another option would be to not go with wood (go with metal instead…) in which case you have other issues to think about…but I’m assuming wood given the aesthetic of your home [Note to other readers: I’ve been inside Brandy’s home.]

The first issue is (relatively) easily solved. Make sure that your wood and wood products either be made from reclaimed/recovered/recycled wood or, if they are from new wood, that they have FSC (forest stewardship council) certification. In order to prove all the issues above you would ask for a “Chain of Custody” or third party certification documentation to prove that the wood is reclaimed/recovered/recycled/FSC certified, etc.

Secondly, to make sure your product doesn’t offgas you want to look for wood products (MDF or plywood) that are formaldehyde free and/or that are GreenGuard certified. Harmful chemicals that offgas can either be located inside the composite wood itself (the glue that holds the wood particles together) or on the finish (the paint or sealant used.) Let’s say you find wood/wood products that meet the first criterion but not the second. Another option would be to seal your surfaces with a formaldehyde free sealant that seals in the harmful gases (I try to reserve this for already existing furniture, not new installations because I think that personally, the less formaldehyde in my house the better.)

California Closets is now working with a particleboard called Skyblend that meets both of the considerations above. If you wanted to DIY you’d have to find particleboard or MDF that meets both of the considerations above and then drill holes, etc. and put it all together which is completely possible. I could work with you to design the closets and am also in touch with vendors who sell woods or particle boards that meet both the standards above. Also, IKEA is committed to only using FSC compliant wood, however I couldn’t find anything about their stance on limiting VOCs (volatile organic compound) emissions from glues, etc.

That’s it for now!

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Bath and Bodycare: Ingredients We Avoid

***Updated added 11/28/2008 on Sodium Laureth Sulfate
***Update added 4/3/2008 on Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate

There are about a dozen or so ingredients that are commonly used in bath and body products, including products that are labeled natural, organic or environmentally friendly, that are generally recognized as toxic either to humans or the environment. Green and Greener strives to not sell any products that contain these ingredients. This is why we often don’t carry the full-lines of some of our suppliers products because some of the products still contain 1 or 2 ingredients that we avoid.

The great thing about all the companies we work with is that they are always actively reformulating to provide the best, most gentle, most green products possible. Because of this, we anticipate being able to offer a fuller array of bath/body products in the near future.

Know that when you are buying from G&G you are buying from a company that is constantly keeping up with the latest information on products and ingredients that contribute to living a greener life. The information below is intended to inform about how G&G chooses its products only, any purchasing decisions you make should be based on your own thorough research.

On to the ingredients…

1. Parabens – Parabens seem to be the most commonly used preservatives in the cosmetic, bath and bodycare industry. Parabens are “estrogenic” (meaning they mimic estrogen hormones) and can be absorbed through the skin. These chemicals may be linked to breast cancer, can be skin and eye irritants, and are derived from petrochemicals. Preservatives extend the shelf-life of products and also inhibit microbial growth in the them. “Microbes in my shampoo?” Unfortunately, pretty much anywhere there is water, there are microbes…it’s just a fact, and water is usually a major ingredient in bath/body products especially lotions, shampoos and liquid soaps. Read your labels. Also known as: methyl paraben, propyl paraben, butyl paraben, isobutyl paraben and ethyl paraben. G&G companies keep their products fresh and paraben-free using essential oils, non-paraben preservatives (like citrus seed extract) or colored containers (amber or cobalt blue containers help decrease sunlight and therefore slow microbe growth.) Best rule of thumb is to try and keep water out of your G&G bath products and make sure your hands are clean, or maybe even use a utentsil instead of your fingers to keep your products sterile. If you want to keep your products super-fresh treat them the way you’d treat sour cream or yogurt (only put a clean spoon in and keep them in the fridge.) I personally don’t refrigerate most of the products I use because I buy small sizes and use them quickly, but in the summertime I like to refrigerate the “Sunshine Spray” for a refreshing facial mist.

2. Diethanolamine (DEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA) and Triethanolamine (TEA) – DEA, MEA and TEA are added to products to adjust pH balance and as a foaming agent (shampoos especially.) They are severely restricted in Europe because of their known carcinogenic properties. These three chemicals are ammonia compounds (yes, ammonia!) and form cancer-causing nitrosamines when they come in contact with nitrates (which apparently happens often.)

3. Formaldehyde – Can you believe formaldehyde is used in products for human? Widely used as a preservative (remember the frog in biology class?) it is a known skin irritant and has been listed as “possibly carcinogenic.” It is a component of the ingredients labeled Diazolidinyl Urea and Imidazolidinyl Urea and is just behind parabens in terms of their popularity as a preservative. Incidentally, “urea” is the main nitrogen compound of urine…that’s right…URINE! Most urea comes from labs, not animals, but the main component of urea is ammonia which is a common household cleaning chemical that is restricted for use in cosmetics because of ammonia’s known irritant properties.

4. Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate or Amonyl Lauryl/Laureth Sulfates — Often derived from petroleum, but may be derived from vegetable substances, this cheap detergent is what makes liquid soaps super foamy. The basic problem is that it is too super-concentrated and processed to be good for you or the planet. It is literally the same ingredient used for degreasing automobile engines so why would you want it on your skin? Can cause symptoms from mild skin reactions to dandruff to full on allergic reactions in some and it also doesn’t biodegrade as quickly as pure Castile soap (which we carry and which biodegrades pretty much instantly) or soaps made with Coco Betaine (biodegrades in a week) For more info on this read the fullest description I’ve ever read on the subject.

***Update 4/3/2008: There is a single product that both Sean and I love, and have never been able to find a substitute for, that has reopened the question of the safety of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate in hygiene products: ECO-DENT. After lengthy correspondence with ECO-DENT it became very clear to me that the main point with ALL chemicals is one of concentration and the fact that SLS is way down on their list of ingredients means it has been sufficiently diluted to the point where it is probably safe for most people. As I mention above, the main two issues with SLS are 1) skin irritation (usually caused by extremely high concentrations of the chemical) and 2) biodegradability (again, dilution is key here.) Because ECO-DENT’s formulation has a highly-diluted (maybe I should say “dispersed” since it has no liquid) and because you use so very little of the product in practice (far less than with traditional tooth pastes) that it is something we are comfortable using in our own home. One last point, SLS can be made from many different bases, but you should definitely avoid ones made from petroleum mostly because it is a non-renewable resource. I have not learned about any substantive differences of SLS derived from petroleum vs. coconut vs. anything else.

***Update on 11/28/2008: Some of you have come in to the store asking about the lawsuit brought by Dr. Bronner’s against Whole Foods, Seventh Generation and Alba Botanicals. First of all, we don’t carry any of the products that were of concern because we carry no products with Sodium LaurETH Sulfate. The issue is that in converting Sodium LaurYL Sulfate into Sodium LaurETH Sulfate a toxic cancer-causing byproduct called Dioxins are created. To read the full article about this, visit the Whole Life Times article here. Rest assured that we are staying on top of this type of information and are committed to providing the best products available. Thanks!

5. Petroleum Jelly (aka: Petrolatum) —Although Doris Day apparently swore by the stuff, petroleum jelly is not something you should knowingly put on your face. It is used in many cosmetics (especially lip stick) as a base ingredient or as a “moisturizer” however its moisture is temporary and can even interfere with the body’s ability to create it’s own moisture (think about how pore-blocking it must be!) Also, it is made from a non-renewable resource (oil) that is quickly running out. Petroleum often shows up in cosmetics in other ways too (see ingredient #4.) Why is it such a popular ingredient? Because we have been in an era of cheap and plentiful oil and they needed to find a use for all the by-products of oil manufacturing.

6. PVP/VA Copolymer —This ingredient is found mostly in hairsprays and for those who are chemically sensitive, it can damage their lungs. From G&G’s point of view, the most troubling thing about this chemical is that it is derived from petroleum a non-renewable and caustic base ingredient.

7. Stearalkonium Chloride — Is part of a group of chemicals called cationic surfactants and are often used in hair conditioners and creams. This ingredient was originally developed for fabric use for their softening and anti-static properties. Why are they used in bath/body products? Because they are cheap. however, they are known irritants for which natural alternatives readily exist. Other related chemicals include: Benzalkonium chloride, Cetrimonium chloride and Cetalkonium chloride.

8. Synthetic/Coal-Tar Colors — Many of these coloring agents are known carcinogens, and since the only purpose of these ingredients is to make products artificially colored, and they provide know actual BENEFIT to you or your skin, why use them? Personally, G&G believes that good design means only using as many ingredients as necessary in order to make a product function correctly. Synthetic colors are definitely superfluous. Some of our products are naturally colored with grapeseed which also acts as a natural preservative. Voila…pretty color AND the ingredient serves a purpose: GOOD DESIGN!

9. Phthalates and synthetic fragrances — Phthalates are often a component of synthetic fragrances and are a family of chemicals that have been found to produce cancer and birth defects in lab animals and mimic the female hormone oestrogen. The word “fragrance” on a label can also hide a number of other chemicals, often petroleum-based, since fragrances are considered proprietary and companies do not need to disclose what is actually in them. In our mind, that just allows too much room for bad stuff, so avoid anything with the word “fragrance.”

10. Chemical Antibacterials – Chemically derived antibacterials encourage the rise of drug-resistant bacteria. G&G only carries products that contain natural antibacterials such as lavender, eucalyptus and lemon oils or citrus seed extracts.

11. Glycol Ethers – A widely used industrial solvent, glycol ethers are found in paints, degreasers, dry cleaning fluids, brake fluids and then of course perfurmes and cosmetics. This chemical is rapidly absorbed by the body when it comes into contact with skin and overexposure can cause anemia and be hazardous to the reproductive system. May be listed on labels as EGPE, EGME, EGEE, DEGBE, PGME, DPGME where the “G” and the “E” stand for “glycol ether.”

12. Phenylenediamine (PPD) – Found in many dark hair dyes, PPD is linked with skin irritations, and respiratory disorders and its use has been restricted in Europe. Also used for temporary tattoos. One other thing to keep in mind. Most, if not all, of the ingredients above have proprietary “brand name” versions with names that are totally unrelated to the actual chemical ingredients used. Because of this, it can be difficult to know when a brand name ingredient has one of the chemicals above. Our personal rule of thumb is to avoid products with brand name ingredients, because just like “fragrance” it can hold a host of chemicals we don’t want to use. Brand name ingredients can usually be identified on a label as the ingredient that starts with a capital letter (like a Name) and have a R-ball (R with a circle around it) after them identifying it as a proprietary trademark registered ingredient. The same can be send for ingredient labels that use abbreviations or acronyms instead of the full ingredient name.

13. Chemical SunscreensAnything besides Titanium Oxide and Zinc Oxide listed in the ACTIVE INGREDIENTS section of a sunscreen is a chemical. These chemicals are carcinogenic (cancer causing) and are killing the coral reefs. These include: Octylcrylene, Avobenzone, Octinoxate, Octisalate, Oxybenzone, Homosalate, 4-MBC, Mexoryl SX and XL, Tinosorb S and M, Uvinul T 150, Uvinul A Plus.

Some others would include Propylene Glycol and Grapeseed Extract in this list. I have yet to see conclusive evidence against either of these two ingredients.

Disclaimer: G&G does everything possible to make sure that none of these ingredients are in our bath/body products. At this time we do not do our own chemical testing and therefore we rely on the information provided to us by our vendors and their labels. No warranties or guarantees are expressed or implied by this blog posting.

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Why are green products more expensive than their mainstream counterparts?

Well, first of all green products aren’t always more expensive than their mainstream counterparts, but if they are it is usually because they are using higher quality raw materials or because green businesses pay their employees more.

For instance, growing cotton with fertilizers and pesticides is less expensive than growing it organically, however, the fertilizers and pesticides cause damage to the water supply and pollute local bodies of water like rivers and local beaches. In a sense, mainstream cotton is cheaper because companies that raise it that way aren’t paying the full “costs” of their business because they aren’t forced to clean up after their business practices…we are. We pay with our health by exposing ourselves to these chemicals and we pay with our taxes for the clean-up of the environmental problems. If mainstream businesses were forced to pay for their social and environmental impact, prices for products across the board would go up.

For instance, imagine if airlines had to pay for the carbon pollution they put in the air, or if agri-business had to pay to offset the fertilizers and pesticides used on their crops or if paper companies had to pay for all the CO2 that isn’t being processed because a tree was cut down to make paper. If this was the case, all these products would cost more. However, because our government doesn’t force businesses to operate in ways that don’t harm the environment or the laborers they employ you have businesses “self policing”which means that while some businesses do choose to pay these costs and need to pass on the costs to consumers, others don’t and therefore their products are cheaper.

The fact is, it costs a bit more to raise organic cotton or to pay fair wages. But we think it’s a cost worth paying. Maybe because of the higher prices you can only buy 3 new t-shirts instead of 10. But if those 3 shirts are made with soft and durable organic cotton and the people who made them are paid a fair wage, it’s worth it both for you and for them AND for the environment. In the last 20 years or so we American consumers have gotten used to products that are, in a sense, artificially cheap because of plentiful oil that makes it cheap to import products from countries where labor and production methods are cheap because they are allowed to pollute as much as they want. To illustrate this point: China has 7 of the 10 most polluted cities in the world and where are most of America’s imported products coming from? China.

The fact is that back in the day when international commerce was not as common and access to cheap labor and materials was not as common, I’m not talking 1800’s here…let’s just go back to the 1960’s, products cost a lot more.

For instance, in the 1960’s a US-made 21″ television cost $495. That is the equivalent of $3,367 in 2006. What did that mean? It meant that people bought fewer televisions because they were very expensive, and it meant that there were TV repair shops where the TV’s could be serviced, and it meant less waste because people weren’t throwing their TV’s out every few years because it was too expensive to do so. Incidentally, the average cathode ray television has about 4 pounds of lead in it which can do a lot of damage to soil and water it comes in contact with if it gets discarded into a landfill or on the side of the road.

Let me make this point…consumerism itself is not bad. Like many things in life, it’s all about the middle road. The fact is, we’ve veered far from the middle road of consumerism that existed in the mid-1900’s. The consumerism we have now is an extreme sort of disposable products consumerism and it is quickly using up our resources, filling up our landfills and polluting our environment.

However, if green business practices were the norm, this is what our consumerism would start to look like:
– prices for products would go up across the board
– higher prices means consumers demand higher quality, longer-lasting products
– longer-lasting products means less resources being consumed and fewer products being thrown away
– fewer products being thrown away means service repair businesses start popping up to service products
– repair businesses means well-paying American jobs for the many people who can’t or don’t want to go to college but still deserve a living wage
– more people earning a living wage means more consumers who can afford better quality, higher priced, GREENER products

Hopefully you followed my train of thought. Anyway, the point is: cheap is not really cheap, it’s expensive in the most vital ways because it damages the air we breath, the water we drink, the foods we eat and the landscapes we enjoy. Now go buy some responsibly made products!

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