Save a Little Money, Save a Little Planet: a Primer


Fair warning: I’ve mentioned some of the ideas in this post before. However, I think they’re worth repeating. I think it’s also important to provide some background on how we got into such a mess and some suggestions for how we can start crawling out.

There’s a lot of buzz these days about “going green” and product manufacturers have taken notice. In fact, it’s become so popular (and profitable) to slap words like “natural” on products that it’s difficult to tell which products are truly green and which companies are simply greenwashing to raise revenue.

Consumer Reports Home & Garden Blog defines greenwashing as “companies and corporations that make green claims when their products or actions are anything but.” TerraChoice, an environmental marketing firm, has created a list of “The Seven Sins of Greenwashing” defining the term as, “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service”.

The problem: In 1976 Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act and automatically deemed safe some 60,000 chemicals for use in consumer products without data to confirm their safety. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), since 1976, 20,000 new chemicals have been put into products we use every day, again, with little or no data to support their safety. As a matter of Federal law, manufacturers are not required to tell us what’s in their products. The EPA has no authority to make them tell us, nor do they have the staffing or the information to properly test products for safety.

Fortunately, with a little knowledge, we can choose household products that are both safer for us and for the Earth. The best part: the greenest options are often the least expensive, leaving more money in your wallet while helping the planet.

Household Cleaners

There are a few options here. The truly frugal may wish to make their own. Almost anything in your house can be cleaned with baking soda and vinegar. Vinegar is especially good mixed with water to clean nearly any surface. It works anywhere you might use glass cleaner. Mixed with hot water, vinegar will easily clean your floors. When more scrubbing power is needed, try baking soda. My kitchen sink is white porcelain and baking soda does a great job getting the grime off of it. I buy baking soda and vinegar in large quantities at Sam’s or Costco. For pennies I can clean nearly everything in my house.

For those not interested in making their own cleaners, there are more and more options available in stores. To avoid greenwashing, it’s best to go with companies that have been upfront about their product ingredients for a long time. Seventh Generation is one good choice, as is EcoStoreUSA (stay tuned for some upcoming product reviews). When in doubt, read the ingredients. If the ingredients aren’t listed, I’d pass. Also look for Warning labels, like “Caution,” “Danger,” and “Poison.” It seems obvious, but if a product has these warnings, you can be sure there’s bad stuff inside.

Laundry Detergents

Most laundry detergents contain phosphates and other chemicals that aren’t good for us or the environment. A healthier (and cheaper) option is to consider making your own. I make mine and it takes about 7 minutes every three months to create a batch. I make a powdered version that has only 3 (inexpensive) ingredients: 1 bar grated Fels Naptha soap, 1 cup borax, 1 cup washing soda. I usually multiply the recipe by three and store it in an airtight container. At 2 Tablespoons per load, one batch lasts for months.

Some people are decidedly against making their own laundry detergent, though. If that’s the case with you, again, there are a lot of options now in stores. Primarily, look for phosphate-free products and make sure to read the labels.

Personal Products

The Environmental Working Group has studied thousands of products over the years and has found that the vast majority contain many chemicals whose effects on humans are unknown. Many of these chemicals have been banned by the European Union (EU) because of safety concerns, but they are commonly used in many of the products we put on our skin each day in the U.S.

To go a little more chemical free, first try to use fewer products. The fewer products you use, the less you’re exposure and the less money you’re spending. Think about which products you absolutely need and which ones you can do without.

Once you’ve narrowed down to the necessities, check out EWG’s Cosmetics Database. It’s an exhaustive list of products rated from 0-10 according to the level of health hazard (lower numbers are better). Not surprisingly, many of the low hazard products listed are made by organic companies, and some of these products can be expensive.  I put together several lists of low-hazard products from the database that are less expensive and can be found in grocery stores and places like Target. Some of the safest products were surprisingly inexpensive. You can find lists for Personal Care Products, Baby & Kid Products, Oral Care, and Sunscreens by clicking the links.

Generally speaking, being green is NOT about consuming a lot of new, expensive “green” products; it’s about consuming less and reusing what you have. Not surprisingly, being green has a lot in common with being frugal. When you don’t buy more than you need, when you use up what you have before buying something else and when you purchase items that can be used over and over and over again, rather than always reaching for disposables, you save money. Often, a lot of money. But you’re also being a good steward of the planet. If you take just a few minutes to think about how you can ditch some of the disposables in your life you’ll find money savings there as well. For example,

Stop drinking bottled water. Get a reusable, BPA-Free bottle instead and refill it with tap water. Most bottled water is only tap water anyway. Depending on how much bottled water you usually buy, there could be considerable savings here.

Buy fewer paper towels and paper napkins. We’ve started using cloth napkins almost exclusively. Several months ago I bought a large pack of terry cloth shop towels at Costco. The size and absorbency make them a perfect replacement for paper towels. They soak up more and can easily be washed and reused. That mega-pack cost exactly the same as the mega-pack of Bounty paper towels, but this one time purchase will last indefinitely.

Buy in bulk. Where reasonable buy items you use often in bulk. There is less packaging (and therefore, less trash), which is better for the environment, and often bulk purchases are less expensive.

If you think about it, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, is merely a new spin on age-old advice. My grandmother (who is 87 at this writing) grew up very poor in eastern Kentucky in the 1920s and ’30s. Reduction was a way of life; they existed on the bare minimum. They had to use and reuse everything they had until it wore out, and when something did wear out, the parts of it that were left were recycled into something else. They didn’t think of it as “being green.” For them, it was merely common sense.

I’m not advocating that we all turn to abject poverty as a way of life, but I’ve never heard anyone say they were sorry they’d simplified their lives by pairing down some of their “stuff” and consuming less. Today, try to think about how you can reduce, both your spending and your footprint. Then find a good place to put all that money you save.

Photo Credit: Pop


  1. Great set of tips. 🙂

    As to paper towels/napkins: Next time you run out, just don’t buy any more of them. Make it an experiment. That was my wife’s idea about a year ago, and we haven’t bought any since.

    It sounds obvious when you say it out loud, but it surprised me that “grab rag, clean up spill/mess, throw rag in hamper” is just as convenient as “grab paper towel, clean up spill/mess, throw paper towel in trash.” The only switch necessary is to find a place (near where you keep paper towels now) where you can store a bag of clean rags.

  2. Great tips Beth!

    Monsanto comes to mind when you mention “greenwashing.” They are literally destroying the planet and our food supply, but if you go to their website, you’d think they’re supportive of sustainable and organic farming methods.

    I’m glad you pointed out the toxins in personal care products and the EWG Skin Deep database. It’s not just about the environment, it’s about our health too, and the personal care products we use every day are destroying both. So few people realize this!

    Thanks for the link to the homemade laundry detergent. I’ll have to try that!

  3. @ Oblivious Investor — What a great idea. I do use far fewer paper towels now, but I probably could do without them if I didn’t buy any more. We’ve found the terry cloth towels are much better for large spills and clean-ups anyway. With twin 3 year olds, we seem to have a lot of those. 🙂

    @ Vin — Thanks for mentioning Monsanto. I’m working on a post about them. Their practices are truly frightening.

    Re: health hazards — that’s one of the reasons I became so interested in these topics. I found out, through the cosmetics database, that not only was the sunscreen I’d been using on my young daughters not particularly effective, it also rated as a “high hazard” for health safety. Yikes! We are now using much safer and more eco-friendly products than we were before.


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