Sustainability vs. Eco-Friendly – What Is The Difference?

windmill farm for sustainablility

We should all be doing our bit for the environment in the midst of climate change. However, with so many terms being mentioned, it can be hard to work out what each of them means. The likes of sustainability, eco-friendly, and green all purport to raise awareness of environmental responsibility but each means something a little bit different. 

If you want to do your bit for the environment then it may be the case that you look for the right products and not necessarily buy any new ones. If you can limit your spending and reuse what you currently have then this may be the best way forward. In this guide, we will look at what the terms sustainability, eco-friendly, green, non-toxic, and Fair Trade mean.

What Does Sustainability Mean?

There is a definition of sustainability from the United Nations which does help confirm its interpretation without much doubt. The United Nations defines sustainability as looking after the needs of the current generation without compromising any future generation with their ability to meet their own needs. Essentially, it’s leaving an area or the environment just how you found it so the future will not be affected.

When you think about sustainability, it should concern ecology. Namely, ensuring that the national systems are in balance for the environment and can go on without being harmed. Human actions can disrupt these natural systems so sustainability looks at ways humans can live while still allowing for a healthy balanced ecology. Moving away from sustainability is taking an excessive amount from our natural resources and our own natural environment which harms both for future generations. 

Sustainability is primarily concerned with the planet’s future. By ensuring that no natural resources are harmed while looking out for the economic and social benefits of various projects. One of the key points of sustainability is to do all this without causing pollution, which includes a project’s lifespan and a product’s creation with how it is eventually disposed of. In terms of the environment, if you were to compare sustainability with eco-friendly, sustainability would be higher as it includes eco-friendly products but goes beyond to look to the future.

You could also act sustainably with your purchases if it means buying only what you strictly need. That should mean the essentials like food and toiletries yet if you are looking for a book to read you could use a library instead of buying a new one and having it shipped over. The shipping process is also important to consider because energy and resources are used to transport products to your door. That includes the carbon emissions that will harm the environment, even if the product is considered to be sustainable. 

bike with "share more consume less" sign

How Is A Product Considered Sustainable?

As long as the product provides benefits that are economic, social, and environmental, then it can be considered sustainable. To look out for the environment, it is expected that the product’s creation causes no pollution and may even reduce it over time. These are reusable products, come with a zero-waste lifestyle, and are actively beneficial to the immediate society they serve. You can be pretty confident that the products are made from organic materials too as these are designed to be sustainable in how long they last.

This range of products should include those reusable bags that you can take with you to the grocery store instead of those plastic ones that you may only use once. Reducing society’s use of plastic is one means of being considered sustainable so using reusable sandwich baggies instead of simply buying more plastic wrap is one way. Also, instead of plastic wrap, there is a sustainable alternative which is beeswax food wraps.

A sustainable product does not need to be produced to be considered sustainable. In fact, the less production the better if it means looking out for future generations. That should mean using what is already available instead of manufacturing new products, no matter how gentle the production process is on the environment. A sustainable product could easily be recycled clothing which could save you driving the need for more clothes to be produced. 

You may not even have to buy a product that is considered sustainable, the practice could simply involve offering a new life to an existing product. Whether it is handing over crockery that you no longer use so that a family does not have to go out and buy it or handing down clothes to a younger sibling. This can even be done online if you find a website that can help you offload your unwanted products to others, you may even earn some money doing it. What could make it truly sustainable is if you could walk to exchange these products instead of paying for shipping or traveling in a motorized vehicle. 

Should you find a need to buy something that is new, try to make sure that it is recyclable. This includes clothes that have a sustainable fabric and fiber, like organic cotton. Fabrics like organic cotton use up less water and toxic chemicals. With less waste and reusable qualities, you can assert that they can be considered sustainable.

What Does Eco-Friendly Mean?

Eco-friendly should be relatively straightforward and obvious. Eco-friendly is a shortened version of environmentally-friendly and relates to any behavior or action that is friendly to the environment and does not harm the planet negatively. From the product’s manufacturing and packaging, to the product itself that should be safe for the environment and the planet. 

The packaging process should be environmentally responsible so that nothing in the product’s creation has harmful effects on the environment. That looks at the carbon footprint of the factory where the product is produced and any harmful emissions from the water that can also be considered.

tall apartment house with lots of greenery

How Is A Product Considered Eco-Friendly?

As long as a product does not harm the environment, then it can be considered as eco-friendly. Alas, meeting eco-friendly standards is not something that is certifiable and does not proudly come with its own stamp. If you do see a product that states it is eco-friendly then it should mean that it is working towards producing the least harm possible on the planet. There are also production practices that use less energy and the product itself should be renewable and biodegradable. 

Some of the confusion around the term, ‘eco-friendly’ is down to how strictly it is applied. While the product itself may be better for the environment than a common alternative, the actual production process will still use up energy, and water, and then create waste. It is almost impossible for a product to be created that does not involve some potential harm to the environment, no matter how hard it tries. This is where an argument exists that ‘eco-friendly’ is actually a misleading marketing claim, akin to greenwashing, as it is not strictly possible to create something new that does not produce some harm to the environment. 

Take, for instance, a bamboo toothbrush as an eco-friendly alternative to a traditional plastic toothbrush. This is where some production methods and the inherent materials look to have a lower impact on the environment, though that may not always be the case. There is also the occasional requirement for packaging to confirm why a product is being considered as eco-friendly and environmentally friendly. This requirement should be fairly obvious if it is a direct alternative to something plastic, for instance, yet that still needs to be explained. 

A product that is effective at being eco-friendly is one that should last for a long time so you are not tempted to add it to the garbage, which is close to being sustainable too. That could mean having reusable parts or the product is made so well that you hand it down rather than throwing it away. There are various eco-friendly logos that you can also look out for including the Fair Trade certification, Greenguard for low chemical emissions, and Madesafe for a product that was created without known toxic chemicals and with safe ingredients.  

What Does Green Mean?

You may come across the term green quite a lot and it is used quite liberally, even colloquially. This should refer to anything, including products and practices, that are related to benefiting the environment. This could include fashion, food, or even architecture. Being green does not strictly have to mean being sustainable, though it does help. 

How Is A Product Considered Green? 

A product could be produced from renewable resources so it can be called green. However, during its life cycle, it may consume some energy to be produced and then shipped. If it cannot be disposed of properly, that green status remains yet it cannot be considered as sustainable. For instance, if a food product is made from sustainable plant-based materials then it can be green but if the packaging cannot be recycled and it is transported for long distances then its sustainability is in question. 

What Does Non-Toxic Mean?

A non-toxic product is one that strictly contains no poisonous ingredients. It cannot be dangerous or cause harmful symptoms that have been associated with toxic responses in humans. This may even be a product that you would not necessarily want to eat, such as crayons which can call themselves non-toxic. The problem lies in that to be non-toxic requires little government standardization at all. 

Those toxic responses are pretty drastic and include poisoning, cancer, and hormone disruption. So you may not enjoy the after-effects of eating a box of crayons yet at least it is non-toxic. 

woman holding non-toxic reusable water bottle

What Does Fair Trade Mean?

Fair Trade certification is certainly something that you may want to look out for if you are concerned about the ethics of the products you are buying. The certification looks to meet and maintain standards in the supply and production of a certain ingredient or product. You can typically see Fair Trade certification on chocolate packaging as a highly ethical product. The Fair Trade element concerns safe working conditions, workers’ rights, and fairer pay.

In terms of the environment, deciding to buy Fair Trade products looks out for farmers and the production process. The farming techniques should be climate-friendly and look to build sustainable practices for future generations. 

What Does Organic Mean?

When you are looking towards an organic product, it should have been produced without using pesticides that are considered conventional. The product may not be made with fertilizers that include synthetic ingredients and especially not sewage sludge. These products do not involve bioengineering or even ionizing radiation. Any food that is produced this way should be sold as organic and should be clearly labeled with a USDA symbol. 

What Does Ethical Mean?

An ethical product is one that has not caused any harm in its creation. Similar to a product that has gained Fair Trade certification, it cannot have negatively impacted an individual’s mental wellbeing when it has been produced and not harmed the planet either. A product that is ethical cannot encourage any addictive behavior or promote information that is harmful, it must be for the greater good. 

What Does Eco-Conscious Mean?

Eco-conscious is very close to being eco-friendly as it is made to show concern for the environment. Brands that claim to be eco-conscious will recognize threats to the planet, including climate change and pollution being just two, and have come up with ways to overcome them. 

What Does Biodegradable Mean?

A biodegradable product is one that can be broken down when disposed of. That process will be done by naturally occurring microorganisms that turn the product into certain compounds that are found in nature. Think of food scraps such as a banana peel that can be turned into compost with or without oxygen.

small globe on grass

What Does Zero Waste Mean?

For a product to be considered zero waste means that its creation reduces the amount and toxicity of waste. Its production will be responsible and result in no discharges to the water, air, or land that will threaten human health and the environment. The product’s consumption will avoid waste as it will involve reuse, recycling, and maybe responsible biodegradable rotting too.

Final Thoughts

Many companies and marketers are using terms such as green, sustainable, eco-friendly, and non-toxic as a means of making their customers feel better about their products they are buying. If their customers are led to believe that by buying a product they are not harming the environment then they may be more inclined to buy it. All these terms share the same goal, to reduce harmful practices on the environment. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you say that green and sustainability are the same?

You cannot strictly call a product green and sustainable at the same time if it fails to meet stringent criteria. Being green typically means that a product looks out for the environmental movement, but it may not be sustainable. To qualify as a sustainable product, a lot of criteria have to be met that go beyond simply looking out for the environment and looking to preserve the ecology for future generations.  

What are the three types of sustainability?

You can look at sustainability as including three distinct types.

The first is economic viability which looks at how a project will produce economic effects in the short and long term.

Then there is environmental protection, or how a project will look out for the environment for future generations.

Finally, there is social equity which involves how a project may harm or benefit a community, effectively whether the effects of the project are distributed evenly. 

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