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EARTHWATCH

Environmental Fixing Up : Hardware centers are emphasizing the idea that caring for the planet begins at home.

June 03, 1993|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last month Ron Christiansen, manager of the Oxnard branch of The Home Depot home improvement chain, hung a huge new sign up where everyone in his store can see it. "We Care About the Environment," the sign announces.

We've heard this before, right?

Well, I checked it out, and there's a lot more to this than meets the eye.

It may seem to a lot of folks that a home improvement center would have very little to do with saving the planet. But it occurred to me that the home, as a physical location, can be as important a part of our environment as the forests, mountains and oceans.

Christiansen, who has been receiving briefings via TV satellite from the top management of his company, agrees: "Home centers are fundamental to the environment," he says.

He and his staff have been exhorted by the company's officers to offer customers an environmentally friendly alternative product whenever possible. Store personnel also have been asked to recycle the cardboard shipping cartons in order to ease local landfill problems and, while they're at it, make sure they use only energy-efficient bulbs to light the store.

So just what kind of environmentally friendly products do they have in mind?

Examples: Compact fluorescent light bulbs; insulating materials made from recycled cotton, newspaper and glass; toilet-leak repair kits; soaker hoses; ceiling fans (instead of air conditioners); organic slow-release fertilizers; mulching mowers (which produce instant fertilizer), and water-based paints, solvents and sealers.

But Home Depot is taking the whole idea even further and is also expanding it to such things as its lumber purchases. With $7 billion a year in sales and 40,000 employees nationwide, this chain is the biggest in the business.

First, the company got its suppliers to place bar-code stickers on every piece of wood Home Depot sells. And that, according to Home Depot executives, is going to be a precedent for their next move: forcing suppliers to get lumber certified for its environmental impact--with a label attached to that effect.

How can environmental impact be verified?

Scientific Certification Systems, an Oakland-based, independent testing company, is being consulted by Home Depot and other retailers to determine such things as whether wood comes from an endangered species of tree, has been treated with harmful chemicals or was harvested in a way that caused the disruption of the habitat of native peoples or endangered animals.

If it was, suppliers will suffer.

"We're going to start buying (based on this labeling) just like we buy by lumber grades," said Marc Eisen, manager of environmental marketing at Home Depot's Atlanta headquarters.

Home Depot isn't the only store where folks think this way. The entire home improvement/hardware industry apparently is starting to wake up to the fact that "a lot of products in these stores have environmental consequences."

That was the observation of Hal Marsolais, managing director of the National Retail Hardware Assn., a nationwide trade group.

In addition to Home Depot, Ace, True Value, Home Base, Builders Emporium and several other home improvement chains with stores in our county, other hardware stores nationwide also are embarking on a pro-environmental campaign.

They've roped in their suppliers and distributors as well, because if they don't "get out in front," as Marsolais put it, customers--and maybe government regulators--may do so instead.

I also learned from Marsolais' trade organization that other chains have plans to use the results of Scientific Certifications Systems' tests for eco-friendliness on a range of home improvement products.

Meanwhile, there's already a wide local selection of wares friendly to both your home environment and the globe. Some of the products already display a sticker indicating that their environmental claims have been verified by the Scientific Certification System. Whether you shop at one of the chains I mentioned or not, they are items that give the environment a big boost.

The list of what's available is growing rapidly, I'm happy to report. Whatever your needs, you'll probably be able to get an eco-friendly version if you ask the storekeeper.

Ace and True Value have reference guides to this stuff in every store. And if you go into the Oxnard Home Depot, you'll get more than just a dose of environmental boosterism. They've combined my two favorite themes.

In addition to the one banner I mentioned, they have another of equal size, which proclaims: "Helping to Build the American Dream."

Part of that slogan, obviously, refers to the promotion of home repairs. But another angle is their promotion of American-made goods.

Eco home-improvement products are more often than not "Made in the U.S.A."

Check it out.

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