Credit: Jupiter

Is it just me, or are brand names for eco-this and enviro-that becoming as tiresome as sardining one’s self into a SkyTrain car at rush hour?

Catchy trademarks are sprouting up in the most unlikely places. We now have Eco Options at Home Depot, a Green Flight program at Uniglobe Travel and EcoDensity at city hall. What’s next – EarthFriendly space shuttles?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for protecting what’s left of the ozone layer. But when marketing campaigns for everything from dry-cleaning to luxury sedans start making verdant promises, I suspect we’re being lulled into a false sense of environmental virtue. Behind many of the ads filled with lush forests and sparkling waterfalls, it’s capitalism as usual.

It’s easy to be taken in by green marketing. A case in point: Method cleaning products seduced me with its sculptural packaging and claims of “naturally derived” and biodegradable ingredients. I went for the cucumber-scented dish soap (among the smells most sexually arousing to women, according to a Chicago aroma expert). I even ignored the liquid’s peculiar colour – an electric green reminiscent of propylene glycol – until I noticed the small print: “CAUTION” and “Do not get on skin.”

Am I supposed to wear plastic gloves (made with toxic phthalates) whenever I wash the pots and pans?

After scouring Method’s website, I discovered the dish soap contains sodium lauryl sulphate, a known skin irritant, as well as artificial colours and synthetic fragrances (many of which are hormone disruptors). But technically they’re still “naturally derived” – as are all chemicals formulated from raw ingredients from the earth.

Method now has a campaign called Detox Your Home, and its green marketing is paying off: lately, I’ve spotted Method even in the homes of the most avid environmentalists, and the company enjoyed a 140-per-cent increase in sales last year.

To be fair, Method products are probably more benign than many. But why support this San Francisco company when Canadian- made products such as Nature Clean are free of known toxins?

The point is, there are many shades of green, and distinguishing between deep evergreen and pale avocado isn’t easy. You have to read up on a product’s ingredients or raw materials, and figure out which are considered safe and sustainable. As new research comes to light, health and environmental standards are changing all the time.

Then there is the product’s life cycle to consider, meaning its total environmental impact. A flat-screen TV with a nifty bamboo case, for example, may seem more sustainable than your basic cathode-ray tube encased in plastic. But not if you count the energy required to manufacture a brand-new TV to replace a perfectly functional one, especially since the old one may consume less power than the plasma screen.

I don’t mean to imply that all green products are suspect. Some companies are making valiant efforts to source low-impact materials and manufacture them in more sustainable ways. In Vancouver, plenty of local clothiers are fashioning soy, hemp and organic cotton fabrics into stylish togs that are made and sold exclusively in North America. Sure, the organic cottons aren’t grown here, but there’s only so far a clothing maker can go.

But even “sustainable” products have their limitations. The problem with many green marketing campaigns is the message that if we buy certain products – the more, the better – we’re doing our bit to save the planet.

The reality is that consuming less is the most sustainable route. Investing in three pairs of leather shoes from Italy, for example, has got to be better than splurging on 10 pairs.

In the end, we can either assume that an eco-branded product is more sustainable than the average, if only marginally – or we can figure out whether the green in the marketing is as much of a fairytale as the Emerald City of Oz.

These days, I’m giving everything I buy – and buy into – a closer look.

Adriana Barton is a reporter at the Globe and Mail and has written for magazines including Utne, enRoute and BCBusiness.