11 Things You Thought Were Green -- But There's a Catch

A harvester in a dry field of crops

Freestocks.org / Flickr

Going green requires difficult lifestyle changes — choosing from an overwhelming assortment of options and sifting through a lot of misinformation while you're at it. In the process, you're likely to get stung by the occasional urban legend or folk-minded blunder. That's OK — it's all part of the effort. But to help you on your journey to the greenest life possible, here's our list of 11 things you thought were green, but might not be.

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Hybrid SUV


Sport-utility vehicles are the stereotypical gas-guzzling villains of the transportation industry. Though they've been demonized, scores of people rely on them due to their luxurious designs, supposed safety ratings and occasionally for their off-road capabilities. Naturally, when the auto industry began advertising SUV hybrids, green-conscious drivers thought they could have their cake and eat it too. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Hybrid SUVs are certainly better than the average SUV, but they almost never get better gas mileage than non-hybrid compact cars and certainly not good enough gas mileage to put a dent in the bigger issue of global warming.

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Bamboo clothing and textiles


This plant creates a viable green building material, but it is not the wisest choice for clothing. Bamboo fibers must be cooked in strong chemical solvents and turned into a viscose solution before it can be reconstructed into proper weaving material, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). As with cotton, the chemicals used to create that fabric are pollutants that can threaten air quality and wildlife. However, some manufacturers do use a more environmentally friendly, closed-loop system that contains the pollutants.

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Grass-fed beef


Grass-fed beef is definitely healthier for you to eat (and grass is better for the cattle to eat, too), but cattle that are fed grass can create as much as 20 percent more emissions from burping and flatulence than grain-fed cattle. As a greenhouse gas, methane is 25 percent more potent than carbon dioxide, and cattle produce a lot of it. The bottom line: No matter how you grow the beef, eating vegetarian is likely better from a carbon point of view.

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The Udall Legacy Bus Tour: Views from the Road/Flickr.

There are a number of legitimately green biofuel sources, but many biofuels are unsustainable. Aside from the food vs. fuel debate — over biofuels produced from crops such as corn or soybeans — some biofuel sources are also the cause of deforestation and water shortages. For example, palm oil production for fuel increases greenhouse gas emissions through deforestation around the globe, especially in southeast Asia. Just because it's not a fossil fuel doesn't mean it's inherently green.

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Soy milk


Soy milk is a healthy, eco-friendly alternative to dairy, but it does carry its own health concerns. Because it's highly processed, milk soy can contain plant estrogens that have been linked to a number of female cancers. Furthermore, the cultivation of soybeans is estimated to have destroyed close to 20 percent of the Amazon rain forest in the past 40 years. The take home? Don't rule out unprocessed soy products (tempeh, for instance), and unrefined soy milks, but make sure you know the origin of your soy.

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Turning off your car's A/C


Most automobile air conditioners increase vehicle exhaust emissions and use refrigerants that are harmful to the environment — not to mention it makes your car guzzle gas. Although rolling down the windows is widely considered to be a far cooler eco-alternative, that's only true if you happen to be traveling slower than 45 mph. Faster than that speed and air drag from the windows ruins the fuel savings from turning off the A/C.

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Organic food labeling

Andrew Stawarz/Flickr.

The organic food movement has been good for the Earth in a lot of ways, especially for helping to eradicate harmful pesticides — but be wary. Just because a label says "organic" it doesn't mean the product is sustainable, and many organic food growers are not local and often utilize the same large-scale farming methods as industrial growers. Furthermore, food labeling can be a sketchy business, and there is no substitute for doing your own homework before you visit the grocery store.

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Carbon offsets

Yodel Anecdotal/Flickr.

Investing in the planting of trees, renewable energy and other carbon-offsetting practices are smart steps toward reducing global warming. Unfortunately, the purchasing of "carbon offsets" for the purpose of balancing your otherwise carbon-heavy footprint is often a capricious practice. The impact of certain carbon offsets are difficult to predict. As a result, measuring their value is often unreliable. The best way to go green remains to change your behavior, and probably not to purchase offsets.

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Fake fur


Wearing fur has been demonized by animal rights activists, but sometimes the substitute can be just as bad. Most fake fur is made of synthetic fibers constructed from blends of acrylic and modacrylic polymers derived from coal, air, water, petroleum and limestone. Like most plastics, fake fur also doesn't biodegrade easily. Besides, there are a lot of other ways to look posh and stay warm.

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Free-range chickens (and more label issues)


The free-range label may conjure up images of happy chickens frolicking in open grassy fields, but the reality isn't that simple. Free-range birds must have access to the great outdoors for half of their typical 51-day life. Often that involves an optional doorway to a concrete patio which the chickens may or may not use. As with everything, don't simply trust a label. (Remember: There's no substitute for knowing your farmer.)

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A grassy lawn


Grassy open spaces are good for the soul and are certainly better for runoff than pavement, but the time Americans spend preening the perfect lawn might actually do more harm to the environment than good. Watering, leaf-blowing and mowing can take its toll. On average, tending to our lawns actually produces more carbon dioxide than a lawn can soak in. While there are things you can do to reduce your lawn's carbon footprint, the best option might be to look at more natural, native landscaping options that require less work, less fertilizer and less water to maintain.