By Kelli B. Grant,
As many environmentally-friendly shoppers soon discover, going green costs some serious green.
Eco-friendly products come at premium prices. A 2008 Honda Civic Hybrid, for example, will set you back close to $7,600 more than its conventional counterpart. Meanwhile, a gallon of Safeway-brand organic skim milk costs $2 more than the regular $3.99-a-gallon skim. In some instances, it's easy to argue that the extra expense is worth it: The hybrid Honda, for example, gets an extra 15 miles to the gallon and the organic milk doesn't contain potentially harmful pesticides, antibiotics and synthetic hormones. But that's not the case with all green products. While some are downright overpriced, others have yet to prove that they will beneficially impact the planet.
Here are five green goods that aren't worth the added cash:
1. OLED TVs
At first glance, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TV screens seem to be the answer to every eco-friendly couch potato's dreams. The super-thin screens contain organic compounds, and use 40% less energy than LCD models. "OLED doesn't require backlight like LCDs do, which lowers its energy consumption," says Dan Havlik, editor for education site Demystifying Digital. "It's definitely the next wave in TVs."
Problem is that OLED is so cutting edge that it's both pricey and unpredictable, cautions Havlik. The thin screens are fragile, with no guarantee that they'll hold up to regular consumer use. It doesn't help that the lone model on the market, Sony's tiny 11-inch XEL-1, costs an eye-popping $2,500, plus about $8 annually in electricity consumption. In comparison, a 42-inch Philips LCD TV costs about $1,300, plus $29 to run. Prices should come down in a few years, once OLED technology becomes more mainstream. In the meantime, stick with LCD and plasma HDTVs. (Read our story to learn more about buying high-def television sets.)
Organic, free-range or other sustainable foods may promise to do wonders for your health, but only at a significant cost to your wallet. (Read our story for tips on how to buy organic without breaking the bank.)The real stomach-churner? With certain items, you're paying more for the label than any real improvement in quality, warns Kimberly Stewart, author of "Eating Between the Lines."
Save your cash on these "green" grocery items:
• "Organic" seafood. Talk about a fish tale, says Stewart. Although you'll see the term "organic" slapped on fish at supermarkets and restaurants, there's actually no such thing. "There is no USDA certification for seafood," she says. "There are too many variables you can't control, like water quality." (Other products that earn the government's organic certification are grown without the use of pesticides, fertilizers, hormones and other chemicals or pollutants, and processed without radiation or additives.) Even farmed fish, like salmon, may require wild food sources --another disqualifier because that feed may have been exposed to pesticides and other pollutants.
• Low-pesticide produce. Not all fruits and vegetables are laden with pesticides. Some, like broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower and onions, naturally repel pests. "They just don't need a lot of pesticides," says Stewart. Others, like oranges, avocados, bananas and pineapples, have thick inedible peels that provide a nice barrier and significantly reduce consumer exposure to harmful chemicals.
• Hormone-free poultry, pork and eggs. Don't pay extra for chicken just because it has a "hormone-free" sticker on the package. The Food and Drug Administration already requires these foods to be hormone free, citing concerns that the animals may not metabolize synthetic hormones quickly, leading to unsafe levels in the edible tissue, says Stewart. (Pork and poultry products typically use antibiotics to spur animal growth, she says. If you're concerned about chemicals making it into your packaged pork and poultry, look for antibiotic-free food instead.)
(Read our story here for more tips on how to decipher green product labeling).
3. Carbon Offsets
The idea is appealing to most eco-friendly consumers: Buy a carbon offset and the money goes to a company that invests in projects to reduce greenhouse gases. That way, you help offset the emissions you release while driving your car to work or flying to your favorite vacation spot. But this emerging field has more good intentions than tangible results, says Brian Clark Howard, eco-tips editor for TheDailyGreen.com.
Even well-intentioned contributions may not go as far as consumers hope. There's no government oversight to ensure carbon offset projects are both effective and nonredundant. "You could be paying for something that would have been done anyway," says Howard. "It's questionable as to whether it will truly have an impact." Planting a tree today, for example, won't do much to offset next week's plane flight, but it will suck up plenty of carbon dioxide in the coming years. The catch: If the tree you paid for would have been planted anyway, however, then your contribution is for naught.
(Read our story to learn about renewable energy certificates -- yet another way consumers can pay for green initiatives).
4. Wine and Spirits
That after-dinner cocktail or glass of wine doesn't become a healthier habit just because the alcohol involved is organic. Many organic wines and spirits are calculated marketing efforts rather than health and environmental statements, says Jerald O'Kennard, director of Chicago-based reviewing group the Beverage Testing Institute. "There's a lot of Johnny-come-lately products out there that aren't worth it," he says. Fermentation, distillation and filtering -- intrinsic parts of wine and spirit production -- eliminate any pesticides anyway, especially in high-proof alcohol like vodka. An "organically grown grapes" label is also misleading, because the winery is still allowed (and often uses) some 500 additives in the winemaking process, says Natalie MacLean, editor of wine education site Nat Decants.
Another negative: "Organic wine has a very short shelf life," says O'Kennard. A little "aging" on the store shelf may leave you with little more than vinegar. If you do buy an organic wine, don't buy anything older than the current vintage, and ask the store how it was stored. Heat or light may cause it to sour faster.
5. Green Building
Swapping your outdated clothes dryer for a new, energy-efficient model is a simple, easy fix to save money and improve your home's value. But not every green building upgrade is worth it, cautions Howard. Solar panels for your roof or a geothermal heating system can easily set you back tens of thousands of dollars. "It's not feasible unless you have a tremendous amount of money, and that's not an improvement that's going to pay for itself in the lifetime of the house," he says. You'd need to stay put for at least a decade just to recoup the initial purchase cost through lower energy bills.
(Read our story to learn more about the cost of solar power).
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