7 Home Improvement Products To Avoid At All Costs

And 7 sustainable alternatives.

April 28, 2015
Bad insulation
Insulation: Not So Good

Here's Why
Fiberglass insulation is great at protecting your home against the elements. The problem, some experts say, is that fiberglass emits styrene, a suspected carcinogen. And small fiberglass particles can break off and irritate your skin or lungs, causing rashes and even respiratory problems.

Good insulation
Insulation: Much Better

Here's Why
While no insulation offers perfect sustainability, plant-based cellulose spray foams or wool or denim batts can be a healthier option. One example: Bonded Logic’s UltraTouch denim insulation batts, made from recycled blue-jean scraps. Free of formaldehyde, they’re treated with a borate solution for excellent fire resistance. 

bad lighting
Lighting: Not So Good

Here's Why
Incandescent bulbs are energy hogs that are being phased out. While many people have turned to compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) as an alternative, their light can be unpleasantly harsh, and the trace amount of mercury they contain makes them a disposal (and breakage) hazard.

good lighting
Lighting: Much Better

Here's Why
Superefficient light-emitting-diode (LED) lightbulbs contain no mercury and last for decades. Those with a Kelvin reading of 2,700 to 3,000 emit warm light like that of incandescents. And prices have dropped: The Philips Slim Style 60-watt equivalent bulb costs $9.42 at Home Depot

bad lumber
Lumber: Not So Good

Here's Why
Whether it’s for counters, cabinets, flooring, or decks, the wood you purchase may contribute to deforestation, the depletion of fragile ecosystems, and the impoverishment of indigenous communities in South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Avoid overexploited woods such as big-leaf mahogany, Spanish cedar, old-growth teak, and rosewood.

good lumber
Lumber: Much Better

Here's Why
Lumber that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has been harvested according to standards that protect against clear-cutting and illegal logging. Columbia Forest Products hardwoods, plywood, and veneers come from FSC-certified forests.

bad fertilizer
Fertilizer: Not So Good

Here's Why
Chemical fertilizers are made with mineral salts that administer a potent dose of synthetic nitrogen to your lawn. Chemical fertilizers may work fast and cost less, but they do little to improve or maintain overall soil quality, and excess nitrogen runs off and pollutes waterways.

good fertilizer
Fertilizer: Much Better

Here's Why
Opt for compost or organic fertilizers made with natural ingredients such as seaweed, fish meal, or alfalfa meal. They release their nutrients slowly and support soil microbial life and beneficial organisms such as earthworms. Try Moo-Nurf, an organic compost made with cow manure.

Bad stains
Deck Sealers + Stains: No So Good

Here's Why
Many of the conventional sealers and stains on the big-box store shelves contain solvents, biocides, and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that are linked to respiratory and neurological problems. They also contribute to ozone depletion and poor air quality.

good sealers
Deck Sealers + Stains: Much Better

Here's Why
Choose products labeled “low VOC” or “zero VOC.” And look for water-based brands that are free of toxic ethylene glycol. Vermont Natural Coatings Exterior Penetrating Wood Stain uses recycled whey protein, a by-product of local cheese making, to create PolyWhey, the key ingredient in its eco-friendly deck stains. $64 per gallon.  

bad cabinets
Kitchen Cabinets: Not So Good

Here's Why
Just as with any wood product, kitchen cabinets made from improperly harvested lumber can contribute to deforestation and damaged ecosystems. There are additional concerns: Many plywood or particleboard cabinets are bound with carcinogenic formaldehyde and have finishes that contain VOCs that can compromise your kitchen’s air quality.

good cabinets
Kitchen Cabinets: Much Better

Here's Why
Choose cabinets certified by the Environmental Stewardship Program (ESP), which promotes sustainable building and business practices. Bellmont Cabinet Company offers beautifully crafted custom and modular cabinets made from 100 percent recycled fiber, with no added formaldehyde and low-VOC finishes.

Paint: Not So Good

Here's Why
VOCs in paint can range from benzene to mercury. Many are potentially carcinogenic and can greatly compromise indoor air quality. While VOCs are at their most menacing while paint is being applied, they can continue to off-gas even after the paint dries, releasing potentially toxic fumes into the air for years afterward.

good paint
Paint: Much Better

Here's Why
Mainstream companies from Benjamin Moore to Behr now offer paints containing low or no VOCs in every color and style imaginable. Since these are nearly free of chemical fumes, you can paint indoors any time of year. Colorhouse goes further with recycled packaging, paint recycling, and a LEED Gold-certified manufacturing facility.