The color green—read “environmentally friendly”—now prefaces everything from gasoline to mutual funds. But is there anything truly green about these products other than the profits that they make for their purveyors?

In a few instances, industry and the professions have begun to earn their colors. One force steering the chemical industry in this direction is the Green Chemistry Institute (GCI) in Washington, D.C. The GCI has stewardship of the annual Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards. GCI director Paul T. Anastas announced in 1998 the 12 guiding principles of “green chemistry.” Number one: “It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it has been created.” Green chemistry, according to GCI, is not only easier on the environment, it saves companies millions of dollars they would otherwise spend on cleanup and disposal.

In 2005 Archer Daniels Midland Company, along with Novozymes, won jointly a GCI award for developing a process to replace unhealthful trans-fatty acids in soybean oil (used in vegetable shortening) with healthier unsaturated fats. The Food and Drug Administration requires the labeling of trans-fatty acids on nutritional panels beginning January 1, 2006.

Their process uses an enzyme, a biological catalyst called Lipozyme. It will save hundreds of millions of pounds of sodium methoxide, detergents and bleaching clay, as well as 60 million gallons of water, every year.

In addition to reducing waste, green chemistry seeks to eliminate poisonous reagents in industry. Toxic chemicals are also a concern for architects designing “green buildings,” which are friendly to both their occupants and the surrounding environment. Adhesives and paints, the sources of “new car smell,” can give off volatile organic compounds that cause headaches and nausea. Other troublemakers include mold spores and dust particles, which can lead to respiratory problems that reduce employee productivity in poorly ventilated office buildings. Innovators in environmentally oriented architecture exist at both the institutional and individual firm level.

In 2000 the U.S. Green Buildings Council (USGBC) defined the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards. Architects can have their buildings LEED-certified under a system that awards points in categories such as “indoor environmental quality” and “energy and atmosphere.” The USGBC launched a pilot LEED program in August for home design. As with green chemistry, green architecture is profitable for its practitioners when all aspects of the process are accounted for, including long-term power bills and disposal of waste generated by construction.

The Condé Nast building at 4 Times Square in Manhattan, the world's most famous LEED-certified building, features an integrated recycling system, solar-cell wall panels and gas-powered fuel cells. Built in 1999, the structure was designed by Fox & Fowle, the New York–based architectural firm founded by Robert Fox and Bruce Fowle. The Helena, a 37-story LEED-certified apartment building on Manhattan's Upper West Side designed by Fox & Fowle, was completed in 2005.

The Frito-Lay plant in Henrietta, N.Y., which opened this June, won a LEED Gold award for its innovative use of permeable parking lots (to filter storm water and reduce waste flow), solar cells and nonvolatile furnishings. It was designed by William McDonough & Partners, which also drew the plans to cover the Ford plant in Dearborn, Mich., with the world's largest “living roof”—10 acres of roof planted with vegetation that simultaneously insulates buildings, filters rainwater and reduces heat absorption.

Norman Foster founded Foster and Partners, a London-based firm that designed the Swiss Re building, a giant chrysalis-shaped glass spire finished in 2004—and London's first green skyscraper. Wind flow across its curved walls creates a pressure differential that drives the ventilation system and reduces the need for air-conditioning. Along with the natural lighting, the air movement halves the power needed to operate the building. A structure's natural environment can be integrated into a building's engineering design by an inspired architect such as Foster.