If America is a haven for consumers, then New York City must be shoppers' central. A city that is synonymous with shopping extravagance, the Big Apple is home to some of the world's best-known retailers ... and one eco-entrepreneur who puts a different spin on buying.
Maureen O'Connor is founder and publisher ofThe Alternative Consumer blog, a site that "reflects the needs of the next wave of smart consumers ... chic, savvy shoppers who want to integrate more green into their lifestyle."
O'Connor, who jokingly describes herself as a "closet hippie," officially launched the site in February 2007 after blogging for almost a year about her own research and experiences in finding sustainable goods. Owner ofO'Connor Media Design, a multimedia production company specializing in corporate meetings and special events, O'Connor began her journey after seeing An Inconvenient Truth in 2006.
"[The movie] really hit home for me, and blogging looked like something fun to do. I started to blog casually, almost as a hobby," she says. "The more research I did for myself, the more it just seemed to make sense -- as I integrated these things for myself -- to share the news."
Eco-blogging has become a serious passion for O'Connor. "The more I read about the ingredients and the chemicals that are in our kitchen and bathroom cabinets and the food on our shelves, I can't help but get more involved and make this more front-and-center."
Now, O'Connor spends about 70 percent of her time working on The Alternative Consumer, which credits more than a dozen freelance writers including Seamus the Famous Eco Friendly Dog, who "contributes his canine perspective on all things eco, every Friday." The site features an impressive array of the latest sustainable products from health, beauty and fashion to green gadgets and alternative energy, as well as top eco-news stories and home improvement tips.
"We try to make it a fun read and make things accessible to people," she says. "I don't want to be preachy. I try to be realistic about incorporating this into one's lifestyle. Things have to be done incrementally, or else it gets overwhelming."
O'Connor says there is an order to sustainability that a lot of people miss. For people interested in becoming more sustainable, she recommends they start by reducing the amount of goods they buy. Second, they should reuse what they have bought as much as possible. Last, they should recycle what they cannot reuse. "Most people think 'OK, I'm green because I'm recycling.' But that's really third on the list."
O'Connor doesn't necessarily want readers to buy everything she tells them is available. As far as weeding out companies thatgreenwash, claiming to offer green goods and services that may not in fact be all that green, O'Connor says, "I do my due diligence in researching what the company of the product is all about. I use my own sensibilities and references as a guide; and, having done it for the number of years that I have, my radar is pretty good as far as catching faux green." She recommends consumers do their own research as well. "Look at the ingredients, where it's sourced, how it's sourced, and look for third-party certification."
Although The Alternative Consumer does not sell products per se, it does collect revenue from direct advertisers such asOlive Green Dog as well as share-of-sale advertisers such asBambeco. In addition, O'Connor also utilizes Google AdSense to collect revenue from contextual ads. In terms of direct and share-of-sales advertisers, O'Connor says she's very selective. "I don't accept just any ads. I look at the company." With three streams of revenue, she's able to spend more time on her blog and explore the possibility of combining green with business meetings and events. "I'd like to promote events that are sustainably based," she says.
While many businesspeople cite economics as one of the barriers to becoming sustainable, O'Connor disagrees. "If you follow the three R's approach [reduce, reuse, recycle], then economics shouldn't prohibit it. Also, as more and more people have gotten involved, the prices are more reasonable; there are more eco-deals available today compared to three years ago. Brands are able to offer discounts because they have reached a level of success. It's a cycle. The more people support something, the more [producers] are able to offer those things at a discount."
O'Connor believes the biggest barrier to going green can be summed up in one word: "Desire." "You just have to want to do something or have something in order to make it happen. There are so many guides out there to help show you ways to tap in. You just have to decide that's what you want to do. If you value your health -- and to me that's the primary thing, that's a no-brainer, because it's better for me and better for the planet -- it just seems to me if one were to look at her own well-being, that should be enough to get going in this direction."
O'Connor's tips for buying sustainable products:
- Check the ingredients. Words such as "natural" can be misleading. Also, many beauty and personal-care products contain toxic contaminants, according to the Environmental Working Group. Read the label and look for healthier alternatives.
- Buy local. Goods that are produced regionally or even made in the United States don't need to be shipped as far as those produced overseas. That's better for the environment.
- Buy goods that are ethically produced. These goods are typically made by workers who are paid a fair salary and involve minimal harm to animals or to the environment.
- Look for third-party certification. "USDA certified organic" rather than just "organic" shows there's a third-party certification to back it up. Others include EcoCert and FairTrade.