At Home Depot, How Green Is That Chainsaw?

NytimesBy CLIFFORD KRAUSS

Home_depot_image_2
Home Depot
sent a note a few months ago to the companies that supply the 176,000
products it sells, inviting them to make a pitch to have their products
included in its new Eco Options marketing campaign.

More than 60,000 products — far more than obvious candidates like
organic gardening products and high-efficiency lightbulbs — suddenly
developed environmental star power.

Plastic-handled paint brushes
were touted as nature-friendly because they were not made of wood.
Wood-handled paint brushes were promoted as better for the planet
because they were not made of plastic.

An electric chainsaw?
Green, because it was not gas-powered. A bug zapper? Ditto, because it
was not a poisonous spray. Manufacturers of paint thinners, electrical
screwdrivers and interior overhead lights claimed similar bragging
rights simply because their plastic or cardboard packaging was
recyclable.

“In somebody’s mind, the products they were selling
us were environmentally friendly,” said Ron Jarvis, a Home Depot senior
vice president who oversees the Eco Options program.

But not in his mind.

“Most
of what you see today in the green movement is voodoo marketing,” he
added. “If they say their product makes the sky bluer and the grass
greener, that’s just not good enough.”

By the standards of Mr.
Jarvis — who fertilizes his own home garden with a liquefied worm waste
product packaged in recycled soda bottles and fills his swimming pool
with salt water to avoid putting chlorine into the environment — only
2,500 of the products made the cut.

Even at that number, some
environmentalists say that Home Depot is being too inclusive. In the
process, they say, it is engaging in its own kind of overstated
marketing, posing as green even as it continues to sell powerful
pesticides and polluting lawnmowers.

Green, after all, has become
the new “new and improved,” a label so widely used that many
environmental groups, while lauding the heightened interest of
consumers, now dismiss many of the efforts as greenwash.

“Everybody is in a mad scramble to say how green they are,” said Jim O’Donnell, manager of the Sierra Club
Stock Fund, which handles $50 million in a portfolio of companies it
considers environmentally friendly. He added that he was hopeful the
product greening would become more meaningful over time.

One
reason for the scramble is that there are few verifiable or certified
standards to substantiate claims. Crest has introduced a toothpaste
containing green tea extract and natural mint, sold under the “Nature’s
Expressions” label, even though it contains artificial ingredients like
most toothpastes. Raid sells a wasp and hornet killer in a green can
marked “Green Options” with “Natural Clove Scent.”

“You almost
have to be a scientist with a lab to decipher the dizzying array of
claims,” said Robyn Griggs Lawrence, editor in chief for Natural Home
magazine. “It’s hard to get information on what makes a product green.”

Few people know that better than Mr. Jarvis of Home Depot, the nation’s second-largest retailer behind Wal-Mart.

The
products he has accepted for the Eco Options promotion include
solar-powered landscape lighting, biodegradable peat pots and paints
that discharge fewer pollutants.

But he has often gone back to
suppliers and independent testers for clarification and new testing on
products. Sometimes he requests product improvements, since Home Depot
ultimately wants to sell about 6,000 products under the Eco Options
program. (The suppliers have an incentive to meet his requests: sales
of products in the Eco Options program have gone up an average of about
10 percent since the program began in April.)

Home Depot
executives acknowledge that they are navigating largely uncharted
waters because the government and private-company certifications that
do exist on environmental impact tend to be narrowly focused.

It
took weeks, for instance, to choose among a multitude of paint toxicity
standards that local governments have set around the country. (Home
Depot said it chose the strictest standard, set in Southern
California.)

For now, most Eco Options products rely on
independent certifications like Energy Star, which measure energy
efficiency and is run by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy.

Even
though Energy Star is a widely accepted barometer for how much
electricity a refrigerator or washing machine uses, it does not measure
other factors, like how much energy was used to make the appliance in
the first place or whether the manufacturer used recycled materials and
encouraged its product to be recycled at the end of its life.

Home Depot is working with Scientific Certification Systems, a
private company based in Emeryville, Calif., that audits and certifies
company claims, to develop new broad-based standards. They will grade a
product based on its environmental record over its entire life cycle —
including the sustainability of its production process, its efficiency
and longevity and how it can be recycled when it is no longer useful.
   

But
until some kind of standard can be worked out, Mr. Jarvis and his team
are forced to work their way through the thicket of claims.

They
are currently considering a rug that is made out of corn fiber instead
of nylon, one that the manufacturer is heralding as a natural,
earth-friendly product. Corn is natural, Mr. Jarvis acknowledged, but
he said he was concerned about the buildup of phosphates in the Gulf of
Mexico coming off the Mississippi River from corn farming, as well as
the fuel it takes to run the tractors in corn fields and to transport
the corn.

“When you look at the entire life cycle, nylon could have less of an environmental impact,” he said.

Teimeiko
Fletcher, an environmental marketing manager at Home Depot, walked into
Mr. Jarvis’s office on a recent day with a thick folder of products
that manufacturers wanted to be included in the Eco Options program.

Mr.
Jarvis liked a dimmer made by Lutron that promised 5 percent energy
savings, but asked that the Environmental Protection Agency be
consulted for verification. He was impressed by a claim by E-3 that a
spark plug for lawn and garden products would lower carbon dioxide
emissions by 7 percent, but he asked Ms. Fletcher to find out if other
spark plugs on the market could do better.

One manufacturer said
its asphalt roofing was environmentally friendly because it could be
placed over existing roofing, thereby limiting overloading of landfills.

Mr.
Jarvis said he was not impressed, even though Home Depot already sells
the product. “Wood shingles would be better, as long as it comes from
sustainable forestry,” he noted.

Skeptics say Home Depot is also
attempting to give itself a green patina, endorsing products that may
not be all they are cracked up to be while continuing to sell
lawnmowers, toxic pesticides and inefficient light bulbs.

Urvashi
Rangan, a senior environmental health scientist at Consumer Reports,
complained of one store where Eco Options signs were placed haphazardly
around toxic bee and hornet insecticides.

“If they really wanted
to promote sustainability, they would discontinue their products with
the least green attributes,” said Garvin Jabusch, a partner at Green
Alfa Advisors, which directs investors on how to invest in a
sustainable economy. “Manufacturers would stop making them on the spot.”

Mr.
Jarvis says many manufacturers have expressed a willingness to work
with Home Depot to improve their products to earn the Eco Options
label. “The manufacturers are seeing the green ship leave the port,” he
said “and they don’t want to be left on the dock.”

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