Is eco-friendly and sustainable the same?
I hear a lot of people say that the language around green living is confusing.
Words with seemingly specific meanings get swapped around, and it can feel like there are a hundred different ways of saying the same thing. Does your decision to buy clean skincare products make you environmentally friendly - or does it make you sustainable? What about your choice to use non-toxic cleaning products?
I worry that all these overlapping words just cloud important ecological decisions. They just make it more difficult to understand the environmental impact of the things you buy and the things you do.
All these words, with vague associations of good or bad, and no fixed definitions to cling on to...they make it too easy to dismiss the whole concept of green living. Too much trouble and confusion.
And this alarms me because living in an environmentally friendly way is so incredibly important. Our planet is struggling, we are suffocating it, and it’s up to every single person to make simple changes so that it can breathe again.
So I’ve put together a quick introduction to some of the words we use when we talk about green living. I hope that if you can understand the language, you can make informed decisions about the products you buy and the actions you take.
What does sustainable mean?
I like the word ‘sustainable’ because it has quite a tight definition.
It’s an idea fully focused on the future. It’s about the principle of meeting our current needs without preventing the people of the future from meeting theirs.
It’s a word often associated with natural resources. Fuel, timber, water for example.
But it actually covers 3 ‘pillars’ of sustainability. These are:
If something is sustainable, something like a process or product, then it creates benefits in one of these areas. But it doesn’t negatively impact our future, by creating a ton of pollution or wasting many resources.
What does eco-friendly mean?
Eco-friendly is a harder term to pin down. It’s used so often and so widely, even I can struggle with it.
One thing you can say is that it refers more to the present.
Something that is eco-friendly doesn’t cause any harm to the planet. Not when it’s made, not when it’s used and not even once it’s thrown out. Eco-friendly things have biodegradable, plastic free packaging. They are made in the most energy-efficient way possible. And they must always be non-toxic.
What other terms do eco-conscious brands use?
‘Sustainable’ and ‘eco-friendly’ are just two common terms you are likely to see used by an environmentally conscious business. These days, almost an entire language has built around green living.
Here are some other words you’ll see used a lot:
This is a term that is used to describe a product or creator, but really it refers to how something is made.
An artisan product is one that was lovingly made by hand. Made by someone who took the time to perfect it and poured their passion and experience into creating it.
The clean movement relates specifically to beauty, although it is sometimes used to refer to other things as well.
The idea behind ‘clean’ living is to avoid the use of unnecessary, unnatural chemicals or ingredients that are shown to be harmful to human health.
If a product is clean it won’t have any parabens, sulphates or other nasty manmade synthetics lurking in it. It will be almost entirely natural, with only minimal synthetic ingredients that are traceably non-toxic.
The term conscious refers to how you live, and more specifically about how you shop.
When you’re living consciously you make sure you only buy things that are sustainably sourced or produced, ethically sound, and (most importantly) that you really need.
Conscious consumerism is about avoiding unnecessary waste. You only purchase clothes, food or other products that you will use and you make sure you get the very most out of them before they are discarded (and, of course, recycled!)
Fairtrade is a strictly defined term that is covered by law. It can only be used to refer to items or products that have been certified by a select group of organisations.
With a fair trade product, every person in the supply chain is treated fairly, has safe working conditions and is paid reasonably.
Like fairtrade, organic is a legally defined term. You can only call something organic if it meets a set of strict criteria set out by a relevant body (the Soil Association in the UK).
To classify something as organic, it must be entirely natural. This means it cannot be genetically modified in any way or have been treated with synthetic (manmade chemicals) while growing.
Plastic-free means, quite literally, a product that does have any plastic in it. At all. Not in the packaging, not in the product itself. It may sound relatively easy to achieve, but the modern world is so reliant on plastic it can pop up in unexpected places (microbeads in toothpaste, for example!)
How do you live an eco-friendly lifestyle?
Don’t be intimidated. Leading an eco-friendly lifestyle doesn’t mean living your life by a strict set of rules.
You don’t have to lose whole days tracking down products that meet all the terms I included above. An eco-friendly lifestyle should make you happier, feel better in yourself as well as the environment. It shouldn’t make you spend hours pouring over every single purchase you make, while guilt and worry about it’s ecological impact eat away at your insides.
It will take a slight shift in mindset. All you need to is hold a few key principles in your mind, and check your decisions against them.
At first, it might be hard. You’ll have to consciously check-in, consider the impact of things you buy. But after a while, it will become natural. You’ll even start to make eco-friendly choices without even realising.
Different people will tell you different principles you need to bear in mind. For me, the guidelines I live by are simple:
One of the keys to living sustainably is not buying things for the sake of it. Whether that’s buying bundles of new clothes every season or weekly food shops that sit in the fridge and rots, you should only buy what you need.
Learn to look at labels. Most environmentally friendly products are proud of being kind to the planet and they make it obvious.
But if you’re not sure, a quick read of the ingredients list is usually enough to let spot any potential poisons and / or guess how many harmful processes it took to create a product.
As well as reducing your carbon footprint by travelling less yourself, living sustainably means looking at where the things you buy are coming from.
Stay seasonal with fruit and vegetables. Avoid anything that’s been flown halfway around the world. Buy from small, artisan producers who care about reducing their environmental impact at every step in the creation of their products.
And if you want more specific tips on living sustainably without damaging the environment take a look through our blog.
Is it important to buy eco-friendly products?
The world is heating up. Our oceans are clogged with rubbish. Our weather is going haywire, with hurricanes and wildfires becoming annual events. Protecting our environment, slowing down this destruction, has to be high priority.
And that starts with you. It starts with small eco-friendly decisions. Picking products with plastic-free packaging, non-toxic household cleaners, and tracking down food that is sustainably sourced.
These aren’t hard things to do but they will help us protect the planet.
So what is the difference between sustainable and eco friendly?
There is a difference between living sustainability and living in an eco-friendly way.
But, trust me, that difference doesn’t really matter. It’s semantics.
What matters is playing your part to protect the environment. Not wasting precious resources, like food and energy. Not spilling out poisons into the ecosystem, from toxic cleaning products and preservative-laden skincare.
You can call it eco-friendly. You can call it sustainable. You can call it whatever you want. It’s the principles that matter.