Saturday, September 8, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A glossary of eco-terms | What does it mean to be green?

Seattle Times staff reporter

It's no wonder we're confused about all the "green" products and materials on the market, given the alphabet soup of acronyms that supposedly tell us why an item is environmentally friendly.

Many stores devoted to green décor and materials often have knowledgeable employees happy to explain every step of the process in making that green sofa. But sometimes you get little more information than what you see on the label.

Arm yourself with a few basics, and you'll be better equipped to navigate eco-friendly territory. We compiled a few common green terms to help before you march off into the unknown green yonder.

Green definitions

VOC, or volatile organic compounds, are carcinogens found in paint, finishes, synthetic foams, fabrics and stains. Most labels should indicate if something has low or zero VOCs.

PBDE, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, is an industrial toxic chemical used as a flame retardant in plastics, furniture and mattresses. In April, the state Legislature passed a measure that prohibits the manufacture, sale or distribution of most items containing PBDEs, which goes into effect for mattresses after Jan. 1, 2008. The chemical would be banned in upholstered furniture and in televisions and computers after Jan. 1, 2011.

Formaldehyde, a volatile organic compound, is used in glue in particleboard, medium-density fiberboard and plywood; permanent-press coatings on fabrics and draperies; in some paints; and in foam.

CFLs, or compact fluorescent light bulbs, are more energy efficient than standard incandescent light bulbs and last longer.

PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is found in vinyl and emits the toxin dioxin when produced. It also contains phthalates, a plasticizing and softening chemical. It's commonly found in toys, shower curtains, window blinds, vinyl furniture covers and artificial leather. It's also found in plastics with the recycling symbol 3.

Organic cotton grown without pesticides or fertilizers is showing up in many home textiles like bedding and towels, but does not apply to how the textiles were manufactured. Manufacturing processes are not generally labeled and could include harsh chemicals, so research the manufacturer to find out more.

Low flow plumbing fixtures include faucets, toilets and showerheads. Installing low-flow toilets and showerheads, and aerators for faucets is a simple strategy to cut water use.

Rapidly renewable materials include those that replenish faster than hardwoods. Bamboo and cork fall into this category.

Kapok trees produce a fluffy fiber in their seed pods. The kapok fiber is a substitute for down.

Green programs

FSC, the Forest Stewardship Council (, certifies wood and wood products and promotes responsible forest management. Its certification ensures wood is harvested sustainably and then tracks the wood through manufacturing to the store. Considered the leading standard for responsible forestry management.

Green Seal ( is a nonprofit group that independently tests household products to meet its environmental standards.

Built Green ( is a nonprofit, residential building program in Washington state that certifies homes built with eco-friendly principles on a five-star system.

LEED ( is a national program by the U.S. Green Building Council that certifies commercial buildings and homes as environmentally friendly based on performance.

Energy Star ( is a federal program that labels household products that have met energy-efficient standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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