In the Eco Chamber

It is a sunny Saturday outside the Eco Gift Expo at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Vendors, who had to write essays describing why they are eco and pay a $2,000 minimum booth fee for the privilege of being here, are selling eco-friendly clothes, yoga accessories, cleansing drinks, purifying lotions, teas, dried fruit and nuts, soy candles, meditation CDs, sports equipment, baby equipment, waterless car-wash sprays, cloth grocery bags to replace plastic ones, and reusable coffee-cup sleeves. An everyday-friendly Persian man, who runs a family T-shirt business started by his father 22 years ago, informs me that all of his company’s shirts are sewn in organic Turkish cotton at a factory in Dominguez Hills, which he invites me to visit sometime. Increases in consumer eco-awareness, he says, have tripled his business over the years. His booth is located beside a company called Eternaleds, which makes extremely long-life, energy-saving bulbs ranging in price from $39.99 to $94.99 per bulb (yipes!), and in front of a booth of framed wildlife photographs. “These photos were taken from a boat in the Pacific Ocean,” says the caption for a photo of a sea otter. “The boat was rocking, so I could only take pictures at the top of the wave.” Okay, you love animals, I think, but what about the glass you used to frame the photos? The wood of the frame itself? Were any otters harmed in the making of those? I do not get to ask. The artist is swamped by people inquiring about his grizzly-bear pics.

How can you tell if a product marketed as “eco-friendly” really is eco-friendly? At the moment, you can’t. There are various gradations of eco-friendliness, ranging from zero impact on the planet or its inhabitants to baby-seal-killing, toxic-waste-spewing, life-annihilating evil. Just in terms of semantics, “eco” is an ill-defined word that encompasses people and geography (though not necessarily both at the same time). The U.S. government does not currently regulate which products or services can be called “sustainable” or “green” or any of the other feel-good eco buzzwords. The organic-food movement went through similar growing pains before a tomato, say, marketed and labeled as “organic” had to be certified as such by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For the bigger terrain of the green movement, it’s the Wild West out there, with cowboys living the dream, sly snake-oil salesmen, and earnest mas and pas just waiting to be hoodwinked.

The man with some truly beautiful snowboards at the Arbor booth tries to temper his sustainability claims. He volunteers that the plastic coating on his snowboards isn’t earth-friendly yet, but Arbor plans to switch over to earth-friendly corn plastic by 2010. Otherwise, the boards are made from sustainable woods like koa, bamboo (which is actually a grass), bolivar, arape and ravenswood. I talk with the Arbor guy for a while, and not just because he looks like Viggo Mortensen in The Lord of the Rings. Wood boards, as opposed to fiberglass and resin ones, have better pop, flex and torque, he says, and are lighter so you can soar higher in the air.

“We do our research,” he says, when I ask how he knows these woods are actually sustainable. “We replant, so we’re not just taking trees out. The owner of the company goes out into the forest and hand-picks the kind of koa himself.”

Elsewhere, a man is hawking paper made from elephant dung. His company sells greeting cards, notebooks, notepads, even children’s books, made from elephant poo. “Magically a sheet of paper is formed without cutting any trees,” a cartoon pachyderm in one of the books confides. “I’m told that if people have jobs making paper and products from what I produce, their children will tell their parents not to shoot me.”

One designer of EcoFleece clothing, a fabric made from 2-liter soda-pop bottles and stitched with hemp, tells me she buys only from “reputable” sources. One of the ways she determines whether her sources are reputable is to find out if her competitors are using them, a method that is equal parts clever business acumen and faulty syllogism.

If they can’t achieve complete eco-friendliness, many companies are doing a kind of balancing act, like the one whose owner promises to plant a tree for every “Save the Planet” T-shirt you buy.

“Can you see your tree?” I ask.

“Probably not,” says the girl at the booth. “It’s not like they have a tracking device on them or a rainforest satellite.”

Epoxybox has a similar deal. For every solar-charged flashlight you buy, the store will send one to Darfur so a woman can carry it around at night to ward off attackers. That marketing technique taps powerful emotions, capitalizing on the idea that the flashlight you buy for a couple of bucks will save a woman — an oppressed, poor woman in a war-torn Third World country — from being raped.

In the end, it is tough to doubt everything. To assume that people lie, and that even the most well-intentioned sellers can be duped or make mistakes, is to dump cynicism on top of cynicism, not to mention the fact that the global nature of the business makes it difficult for the everyday consumer to verify greenness in an empirical way. So we buy eco, assuage our conscience and move on, even hoping in our more optimistic moods that one day our carbon footprint on the planet will be so light that it will be like we were never even here at all.

“We’re not Coca-Cola, but our business model is working,” says Christian Tyler, owner of Rainforest Native, which makes jewelry from Amazonian seeds. He and his wife run their company the way the rainforest shamans taught them. “Sometimes the native people offer to sell us bags of seeds for a dollar, but I give them $12. If you release positive energy into the world, it will return to you. We’re now carried in every Whole Foods Market throughout the country. They buy from us in bulk.”

Make note of whether or not a product carries the Fair Trade logo, he advises. It signifies that a company is doing business in a moral way, is paying its employees well, providing them with safe working conditions, not exploiting them for slave labor, not mucking up the environs. He is fair trade all the way, he says. The Fair Trade Federation, based out of Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit certifying group that offers its own standards for business practices as they relate to human rights.

“Look around,” Tyler says. “Some of these people here today don’t do fair trade.” He’s seen many companies pay native workers $3 to drill 10,000 beads, then whip them into a bead-drilling frenzy by offering to pay a tiny bit extra for more beads.

After a lunch of Yerba Mate and vegan tofu eggplant stir fry eaten with a biodegradable potato-plastic fork, I’m all eco-ed out. Sure, I’ll save the planet . . . later. Of course, it probably won’t be around by then. I try to follow Tyler’s seed-bead trail to Whole Foods, the lucky recipient of a voluntary 10 percent of certain vendors’ sales. In fact, the Whole Foods emerald-green recyclable tote bags are everywhere in sight, dangling off attendees’ arms. The young man at the booth, however, explains that it will not be possible to speak with anyone, because the folks from marketing have gone out for chai tea.

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