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More retailers go for green – the eco kind

Home Depot announced plans Tuesday to offer more environmentally friendly products and make it easier for consumers to find them.

Included are more than 2,500 items ranging from all-natural insect repellents to front-load washing machines. Products that meet the criteria will be tagged Eco Options to make them easier to find.

“We don’t have people banging on our doors, saying, ‘Give us your green products,’ ” says Ron Jarvis, Home Depot vice president of environmental innovation. “But it’s the right time to educate consumers that their shopping habits can have an impact and that they can make a difference without going out of their way.”

The move by the country’s second-largest retailer comes after the largest, Wal-Mart, kicked off an environmental initiative last fall that favors suppliers who restrict carbon emissions and embrace sustainability.

In the past two years, many retailers have started going greener in the way they build stores, use direct mail and package their products.

“What’s new is that they are moving to thinking about what they are offering in terms of environmentally friendly products and what they expect from consumers,” says Madison Riley, retail strategist at consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates. He cites Ikea’s recent move to charge customers for plastic bags.

Among other retailers who are seeing the benefits of being green:

• Target. The discount retailer became a certified organic produce retailer late last year and now offers more than 500 choices of organic certified food. Pat Perry, senior group manager of environmental services, says Target has long tried to reduce waste through food-donation programs, giving away about 7 million pounds of food last year. Target also has four buildings in California that use solar energy and will have 18 in that state by the end of the year.

• Timberland. The outdoor company recently introduced Green Index tags on a number of its products. The tags rate products based on several issues, such as use of greenhouse gas emissions, solvents and organic materials. Timberland plans by 2010 to become “carbon neutral,” which means that the business will not negatively affect the climate. Among other things, it is increasing investments in solar panels and wind turbines. To commemorate Earth Day, Timberland will plant a tree on behalf of each customer who spends $150.

“Consumers are really looking to support companies whose values they associate with,” says Betsy Blaisdell, Timberland’s manager of environmental stewardship.

• Lowe’s. In February, the Home Depot competitor started offering organic gardening supplies, including fertilizer, soil and insecticides, that are friendly to children and pets. The company says more than 100 million people use organic lawn and garden products. Lowe’s opened a prototype environmentally friendly store in Austin, Texas, last year and plans to open another later this year in Toronto. Eco-friendly bamboo flooring and blinds and low-flush toilets, which once had to be specially ordered, are now available in stock.

“We know that the demand is there and the awareness is building,” says Lowe’s spokeswoman Jennifer Wilson.

On Sunday, which is Earth Day, Home Depot will give away 1 million compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs, which are more energy-efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs. It also will launch an interactive Web site promoting its green products.

Home Depot’s Eco Options products are either environmentally friendly by definition, such as solar lights, or have met certain environmental performance criteria. It used an independent company to certify the products in areas including clean air, water conservation and sustainable forestry.

“We are seeing a strong uptick among retailers and catalogers toward green marketing in the last two years,” Aaron Sanger, director of the corporate action program at nonprofit ForestEthics, says in a report on green retailing by marketing company SmartReply.

Many companies started getting involved from a defensive posture, but now “see it as a market opportunity, and they’re out there investing money in it,” Sanger says, according to the report.

Still, it will be a long time before environmentalists think enough has been done. After all, Home Depot’s Eco Options label will be on just 2,500 of its more than 40,000 products.

“What we want to see is that every product has environmental benefits associated with it,” says Gwen Ruta, director of corporate partnerships at Environmental Defense. “There is no reason we couldn’t get to that point if the retailers are really pushing on their suppliers to make more wholesale changes.”

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