On Earth Day, what’s ‘green’ perhaps really isn’t

This Earth Day, a host of organizations and companies are urging you to “go green.” We all like to give Mother Nature some love, but what does being “green” really mean? Unfortunately, a look beyond the rhetoric and into the science reveals that many ostensibly “green” products, from green buildings to GMO-free foods, are little more than glitzy marketing campaigns.

Take green buildings, for example. There are a number of organizations that rate buildings based on their environmental friendliness, but not all rating systems are created equal.

The most ubiquitous of these rating systems, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, or LEED, is developed and managed by the U.S. Green Building Council, a privately run nonprofit. But though LEED is promoted by federal, state and local governments, it doesn’t actually determine a building’s overall energy or water efficiency.

Surprised? Research shows that LEED-certified buildings are often less energy-efficient than their noncertified counterparts. In fact, research from The Washington Examiner found many of the LEED-certified buildings in Washington, D.C., were the least energy-efficient of all comparable buildings.

To earn LEED certification, buildings don’t actually have to prove that they’re energy or water efficient. They just have to show that based on computer modeling and projected use, they meet a certain threshold. Once the building is actually occupied, the USGBC doesn’t require that the building continue to show efficiency based on utility bills. So even if a building is an energy and water hog, it can still be LEED-certified.

The Environmental Protection Agency has its own green building rating system — EnergyStar. To earn the Energy Star seal, buildings have to present actual utility bills to prove they are operating with high water and energy efficiency. Comparisons of LEED-certified buildings and Energy Star-certified buildings have shown that there is no correlation between LEED certification and a high Energy Star score.

LEED has been criticized as mere “greenwashing” by some environmentalists. It’s little wonder why. To achieve various levels of LEED certification, a building needs to accrue points. But as a USA Today analysis pointed out, many of the points are very easy to achieve and have little bearing on energy efficiency. Adding a bike rack will earn a building one point and building only the minimum required number of parking spaces will earn you two — the same number of points a building would earn for installing an expensive renewable-energy power system.

Advocating for more energy-efficient green buildings is certainly a laudable goal, but in many cases these “green” buildings offer their occupants little more than a feel-good plaque. In fact, the same can be said for the “GMO-free” labels on foods.

Environmental activists have long claimed that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are harmful to the environment. Activists have promoted non-GMO options as the “greener” option. Indeed, during the month of April, the Non-GMO project is pushing the Non-GMO Challenge, which urges individuals to eat non-GMO all month long.

But GMO foods aren’t actually harmful to the environment. The technology allows farmers to grow more food on less land — a clear environmental advantage.

The scientific community stands firmly behind GMO safety, too. The most well-respected scientific and medical associations in the world, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, British Royal Society, World Health Organization, American Medical Association and American Association for the Advancement of Science all agree that these foods pose no risks.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of GMO safety, there is still a concerted movement to ban GMOs or require their labeling. Because of the activist campaigns, food manufacturers have begun to market products that don’t contain GMOs as GMO-free. Oddly enough, the label is being slapped on foods that wouldn’t normally contain GMOs — meaning the label is essentially meaningless.

Earth Day offers a great opportunity to make real lifestyle changes to reduce your environmental impact. Ride your bike to work, plant a tree or do some composting. But simply renting a LEED-certified apartment or purchasing GMO-free groceries are feel-good steps that make virtually no difference.

Anastasia Swearingen is a senior research analyst at the Environmental Policy Alliance, a project of the nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education.