All I Want for Christmas Is a Compost Bin

Wall_street_journal_online_jpegOriginally posted Nov. 29, 2007
by Sara Schaefer Munoz, The Wall Street Journal

Eco-Friendly Retailers Tout
‘Green’ Holiday Presents;
Carbon-Offset Gift Certificates

Are soy candles and spinning composters on your holiday list this year? A bevy of so-called green retailers are hoping so.

With so much public attention on climate change and
sky-high oil prices, these retailers are pitching energy-saving or
recycled items that haven’t traditionally been on most people’s wish
lists — a low-energy desk lamp, for example. And while many retailers
have boasted luxury wrapping in past years, companies are this year
proffering natural and biodegradable packaging — or none at all.

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Boston Green Goods Inc. recently launched an
eco-friendly shopping site, GreenandMore.com, which is promoting
holiday gift ideas like solar-powered chargers and plug-in devices that
count how many kilowatts your electronics are using. Another site,
Olivebarn.com, this year created a page devoted exclusively to "Eco
Green Gifts," which include candles made from soy-based wax, as well as
a compost container for the kitchen counter. (The company also packs
shipments in biodegradable "peanuts" made of corn starch instead of
styrofoam.) Gaiam.com says items like reusable shopping bags make great
gifts — and for an additional $2 lets customers plant a tree to offset
the emissions from shipping them.

Makers of basic and utilitarian products are also seeing an opening to hawk their wares this holiday season: Siemens
AG’s Osram Sylvania, a maker of lighting and electronics, this year
created an online holiday store (store.sylvania.com) featuring gift
suggestions such as long-life flashlights and desk lamps that use a
light emitting diode instead of a traditional bulb.

"One of the things we are hoping people will keep in mind is the gift
of efficiency and sustainability," says Stephanie J. Anderson, the
company’s chief corporate spokeswoman.

While it’s difficult to track the sales of all so-called green or
eco-friendly goods, demand for more energy-efficient appliances has
grown recently, as have purchases of organic products. In the 12-month
period ended in October, the percentage of refrigerators, washers and
dishwashers sold that were Energy Star-qualified — meaning they met
government standards for high efficiency — edged up to 64%, from 62% a
year earlier, according to NPD Group, a market-research firm in Port
Washington, N.Y. According to a manufacturers survey from the Organic
Trade Association, an industry group in Greenfield, Mass., sales of
nonfood organic products such as linens and personal-care products were
$938 million in 2006, up 26% from 2005.

Some products that are billed as "green" are priced
higher. Compact fluorescent bulbs, for example, save on energy but cost
around five to 10 times as much as traditional incandescents. Yet other
items, like Energy Star electronics, may not command a premium. Some
retailers are hoping consumers will spring for big-ticket eco-friendly
items this year, such as electric bikes that sell for $600 to $900. The
bikes are available on the new site MyEBike.biz, where the home page
says, "This X-Mas, help the environment." Owner Brandon Lance says the
bikes offer long-term savings on gasoline if used regularly instead of
a car.

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Some retailers are also hoping holiday shoppers will
be willing to pay to offset their carbon emissions — or give the gift
of carbon offsets to others. At sites like TerraPass.com, consumers pay
a fee to fund projects that create renewable energy through sources
like cow dung or wind, which aim to balance out the impact of people’s
driving or electricity use. TerraPass offers gift certificates that
allow people to offset the recipient’s carbon emissions for a year. For
example, the Road TerraPass member kit ranges from $29.95 to $79.95,
depending on car emissions. It has also launched a new online gift
store, which includes suggestions such as composters for $139 and an
outdoor fireplace that burns with corn-derived fuel for $545.

Another new site, www.climatecooler.com, lets you
off-set the greenhouse gases from your holiday purchasing at no cost.
Registered users shop through various partner retailers, and the site
calculates the pounds of greenhouse gases used in the production and
shipment of the products you buy. The retailer then pays a fee that
funds larger ecological projects such as converting methane to
electricity at a dairy farm.

The word "green" is being used in marketing very
broadly — to define a water filter for example, because it cuts
purchases of individual bottles of water. So some consumers may wonder
which products make a real difference for the environment. The word
"natural" can also fluster consumers. Textiles made from 100% natural
cotton often mean that no dyes or chemicals were added to the cotton,
but it doesn’t guarantee the cotton was grown without the use of
pesticides or other chemicals.

Standards are tighter for the word "organic." The U.S.
Department of Agriculture requires that products with fibers such as
cotton or wool that are labeled organic must be produced without the
use of most conventional pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.

"Green still kind of means a bunch of things," says
Adrien-Alice Hansel, a literary manager at a theater in Louisville,
Ky., who is looking for eco-friendly gifts this year. "It can mean less
energy than an alternative, but more energy than something else."

Indeed, not buying an item can be the best bet for
consuming less energy. Lee Bodner, executive director of ecoAmerica, a
Washington nonprofit devoted to getting people interested in the
environment, says people could consider a "gift of time" — such as
offering to baby-sit or help with a home project.

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However, Mr. Bodner said that if people want to buy
"green," focusing on energy-saving gifts makes the most sense.
Consumers should look for the Energy Star label on electronics, for
example, especially because the government ratcheted up its standards
for those items this year. While a lower-energy-consuming TV or
computer won’t make much of a difference with an individual’s home
energy bills, he says, trimming energy use from household electronics
can make a big difference in the country’s overall consumption.

"Energy-saving products are something that directly
addresses the biggest environmental crisis we are facing, which is
climate change," he says.

As for carbon offsets, he and other environmental
advocates say people should first work on reducing their own emissions
— or "carbon footprint" — before ringing up credits. But, they say,
helping to create renewable energy or trim carbon dioxide from other
sources does have a positive impact.

Cindy Weil, a New York City interior designer and
mother of two, says she’s "not a tree-hugger." But she cringes at the
memory of her overflowing trash can after Christmas last year, and
resolves to make this holiday season "greener" and less wasteful. She
ascribes to the "less is more" theory, and this year plans to buy less.

"There’s a lot of marketing about ‘green’ products, but it’s still just more stuff," she says.

Write to Sara Schaefer Muñoz at [email protected]

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