Quick, here's a short pop quiz. True or false:
1. Products labeled "natural," "green" or "environmentally friendly" cannot contain more than a small amount of synthetic chemical compounds.
2. Bottled water is healthier and more environmentally friendly than tap water.
3. Vehicles should be traded in for hybrid models.
4. Organic fruits and vegetables, which are grown without the use of pesticides, are more nutritious than others.
It's likely that you thought some, if not all, of the above statements are true.
In reality, it's not that simple.
"There's a huge amount of misunderstanding out there," said Michael Vandenbergh, a former Environmental Protection Agency chief of staff who is now a law professor at Vanderbilt University.
The confusion has come at a time when public awareness of environmental awareness has prompted millions of Americans to ask: What can I do to help? This deep-felt desire has sparked a multibillion-dollar demand for products claiming to be natural and environmentally friendly.
"People want to be green," said Paul Stern, a social psychologist at the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. "There hasn't been a time like this for quite a while."
'A bandwagon effect'
Businesses, for example, have used the EPA's much-lauded Energy Star program, which ranks the top energy-efficient appliances, as a basis to design product lines. But the EPA's inspector general issued a highly critical report last month concluding that the agency has done few independent tests to verify whether products with the seal are the cleanest, instead relying on the manufacturers themselves.
These practices "weaken the integrity of the Energy Star label," according to the inspector general said.
No agency regulates which products can claim to be "natural" or "green," and there are no official guidelines as to what those terms mean.
"I've been monitoring with a smile, sometimes with a laugh, just the number of different products and companies who are saying that they're 'green,' " said Daniel Howard, chairman of the marketing department at Southern Methodist University and an expert on advertising and consumer behavior.
The result is that a lot of people are paying a lot of money for products that aren't what they claim, he said.
"Knowing what I know about consumers, markets and businesses, I see that it's basically a bandwagon effect that probably has only a moderate correspondence to the reality of actually being environmentally friendly," he said.
So what should you do?
Educate yourself about the issues, and learn what steps you can take to make an impact.
"The most important thing you can teach the population is how to do independent research and to separate out what's credible from what's not credible," said Stephen Schneider, a professor of environmental studies at Stanford University, who teaches a class on “environmental literacy.”
One thing you shouldn’t do is feel overwhelmed and give up.
And remember, individual steps matter. A third of all carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. are the result of lifestyle decisions and activities everyone can control, Vandenbergh said. "If you aggregate those steps among 300 million Americans, those are not only important but essential to achieving emissions-reduction goals," he said.
Don't fall for these common 'green' myths
Myth 1: 'Natural' means natural
The mass market abounds with products that claim to be all-natural. Americans spent $7.5 billion last year on personal care products that claim to be all-natural but in many cases are not, according to the Natural Products Association, which represents more than 10,000 natural product companies. retailers, manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors of natural products
"I think what's happened is the mainstream has seen the success that the natural marketplace has had and has kind of grabbed onto the term," said Daniel Fabricant, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the association.
Look closely at the labels, and many times you'll see synthetic compounds like parabens, which act as a preservative, in beauty products, and diethyl phthalate in fragrances, both of which are suspected of causing reproductive problems in humans.
There's absolutely no regulation of the term "natural" in cosmetic product lines. Burt’s Bees, one of the country's first natural cosmetics product lines, conducted a survey this year that found that 3 out of 4 women did not know that the term "natural" is not regulated. It has created a Web site called The Greater Good that, among other things, lists chemicals that should be avoided.
"There's just a lot of confusion out there," said Mike Indursky, chief marketing and strategic officer for Burt's Bees, in Durham N.C.
The Natural Products Association is spearheading the effort to develop a definition of "natural" for food, health and beauty products. In July, the association formed a working group of other business representatives to develop a definition.
They hope to be done by the end of the year.
"We're not saying all synthetics are bad," said Mike Indursky, chief marketing and strategic officer for Burt's Bees, in Durham, N.C. "We're just saying that if there's an ingredient that has a potential suspected human health risk, and if there's a natural alternative available, they should use that natural alternative instead."
What you should do:
Read labels: Federal law requires ingredients to be listed on health and beauty products. If some of the ingredients on the package sound like they are petrochemicals such as petrolatum, which are suspected of causing harm, they probably are.
Research: If the salespeople at your store can’t help you, contact the companies themselves. The Burt’s Bees Web site (www.burtsbees.com/thegreatergood) has compiled five questions you should ask companies that claim to make “natural” personal care products, including whether they’re tested on animals.
Do your own research: There are a number of organizations closely monitoring product labeling, and most of that information is available online.
The Consumers Union’s Web site (www.Eco-labels.org) rates numerous products, from those that have accurate labels to those that have no independent confirmation of their content.
Greenbiz, which advises businesses on how to be environmentally friendly, also scrutinizes labeling claims; www.Greenbiz.com.
Myth 2: Bottled water is good for the environment
Few issues spark more anger from scientists, environmentalists and even some government leaders than the belief that bottled water is more environmentally friendly than water out of the faucet.
The growing bottled water market has resulted each year in literally billions of plastic bottles filling landfills across the country. It also uses extensive amounts of energy to transport and filter the water, contributing to global warming, critics say.
And there's no reason for bottled water when tap water in the United States is just as safe.
In many cases, bottled water is filtered tap water.
Several consumer-advocacy and government reports this year found that bottled water sold by Aquafina -- the country's most popular bottled-water brand -- was indeed nothing more than modified tap water. Similar studies also show that Coca-Cola's Dasani brand is "purified" municipal tap water.
PepsiCo., which owns Aquafina, announced in July that it will begin clearly labeling its product as originating from "public water sources."
These revelations have not slowed down the bottled water industry. It's estimated that every American drinks roughly 27 gallons of bottled water a year, according to the International Bottled Water Association, an industry trade group.
"Even if you recycle 50 percent of those plastic bottles, which we don't in this country, it's still billions of bottles into our landfills," said Robert Jackson, an expert on climate change and the environment at Duke University. "A water bottle is no worse or no better than a soda-pop bottle," he continued. "It's just that 10 years ago it was a source of waste that we didn't have because no one used bottled water. Now we have billions of bottles of water going to our landfills when we don’t need to. We have the safest municipal source of water in the world in this country, and we've convinced ourselves that drinking water out of a bottle is healthier and safer."
What you should do:
Drink tap water.
If you don’t like the tap-water taste or smell or are concerned about the cleanliness of the water from your tap, buy a water filter.
If you buy bottled water, reuse the bottle multiple times. One caveat: Regularly wash the bottles with soap and hot water to prevent the build up of potentially harmful bacteria.
Myth 3: Buy a hybrid, save the world
It seems easy enough: With concerns about dwindling natural resources and greenhouse gas emissions, we should all trade in our cars and pickup trucks for hybrid vehicles that run on a combination of gasoline and electricity.
But in some cases, that might do more harm than good.
The reason has to do with the amount of energy it takes to make a new car.
Scientists have done research that concludes that it takes the equivalent of a year's worth of fuel to build a new vehicle. They've done this by conducting what is known as a life-cycle analysis -- a detailed study of the raw materials used to build the vehicle, where the materials came from and the energy it took to collect them. This is referred to as the vehicle’s embedded energy.
"If the car you have is reasonably new, then getting rid of it and buying a new car that just had to be built with all the energy that's used to build it may actually negate a lot of the benefit," said William Schlesinger, president of the Institute of Ecosystem Studies, a Millbrook, N.Y-based private research institute. "The environment may come out ahead by keeping your old car."
The difference between emissions from a 6-year-old sedan and a hybrid "really makes little difference at all," said Brad Allenby, an environmental scientist at Arizona State University. It makes sense to trade in a car for a hybrid once the vehicle is 8 to 10 years old, he said.
Changing your driving habits, however, can make a big difference, Allenby said.
What you should do:
Change driving habits: For example, take care of multiple chores on one trip instead of three or four separate trips.
Keep tires properly inflated: This helps to save gasoline.
Keep your car tuned up: This keeps the car running more efficiently, thus saving fuel and lowering emissions.
Myth 4: Organic food is better for you
You can't talk about going green without discussing organic foods, from meats to grains to fruits and vegetables.
By definition, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products must come from animals that are given neither antibiotics nor growth hormones. In addition, they're produced without the use of most conventional pesticides or fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients.
But is there any nutritional benefit to eating organic?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which certifies what can be labeled as organic food, says no. So do other public health officials.
"There's no evidence of any nutritional benefit to the organically grown food over the conventionally grown food," said Connie Diekman, director of nutrition for Washington University in St. Louis and president of the American Dietetic Association.
But there are other benefits to eating organic food: you avoid exposure to some potentially toxic chemicals, and raising pesticide-free crops means fewer chemicals may be carried by rainwater into waterways used for drinking water. "In general, you can pretty dramatically cut down your pesticide exposures by eating organic fruits and vegetables," said Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C.
But that doesn't mean you should buy only organic fruits and vegetables, Houlihan said.
Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C., lists on its Web site non-organic fruits and vegetables that have been inspected by government agencies and found to contain little, if any, pesticide. The guide is based entirely on inspections of pesticide residues conducted by government agencies.
Fruits such as avocados, cantaloupes, watermelons and bananas have a hard shell or peel that helps insulate the fruit inside. Peaches, strawberries and grapes, however, have been found to have significant pesticide residue, and it might make more sense to buy organic in these cases.
"There are things consumers can do to spend their money in very efficient ways when it comes to buying organics," she said.
What you should do:
Be a smart shopper: Know which fruits and vegetables have been shown to contain pesticides. Visit the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide at www.foodnews.org/index.php.
Eat locally grown food: The food in the average American meal has traveled roughly 1,300 miles to your table from where it was grown, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
A great deal of energy is consumed, and pollution emitted, by transporting food that far.
Many local farmers markets offer produce that has been grown without the use of pesticides.
Organic or not, eating locally grown food can dramatically cut pollution and energy consumption. The Department of Agriculture maintains an online list of farmers markets nationwide at www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/map.htm.