Know your Sustainability Lexicon

What is the difference between Green, Eco Friendly, Sustainable, Natural, Non-toxic, Organic, Ethical, Handmade, Fair trade?

We all tend to use these terms rather interchangeably. The key to embracing sustainability is in the details. It’s in the options — in how we weigh these options and as a result, the choices we make everyday. Let’s look at these seemingly similar “sustainability” terms and identify the underlying differences.

Green = Low environmental impact
A product is Green when it has a low environmental impact. This may be achieved through ANY of the following:

  • alternative design
  • less physical resources
  • more durable build
  • non-toxic
  • minimally packaged
  • recyclable etc.

A product made from renewable resources is considered green, yet in its life-cycle analysis, it may show that it used a lot of energy to produce and package it, also there isn’t an environmentally friendly way to dispose of it. Then the product is not considered sustainable.

Picture Credit: Noah Buscher (Unsplash)

Eco-friendly = Less harm to the planet
Eco-friendly means using activities/processes that do not harm the planet. For example:

  • reduced use of energy
  • less water consumption
  • Biodegradable
  • Recycling
  • Upcycling etc.

While Green and Eco-friendly have very similar meanings, Green is widely used to explain basically anything that benefits the environment — from business practices to innovative design and products. However, Eco-friendly or Environmentally Friendly is not so broad and means something that does not explicitly harm the planet. Eg. cruelty-free products.

Sustainable > Green + Eco-friendly
Sustainable products are those that provide environmental, social and economic benefits while also minimising impacts on these systems throughout its whole life cycle, from extraction of raw materials to the product’s end of life. Compared to ‘”green” and “eco-friendly,” sustainability has much higher standards. Sustainability includes eco-friendly activities and green products.

Sustainability sets the focus on the future. It means the item or action is generating environmental, social and economic benefits, while not using up too many resources or causing pollution.

Natural = Natural ingredients/components
Natural products contain ingredients that are derived from nature as against man-made or artificial ingredients/materials. The term “Natural” is widely and loosely used and may not necessarily have legal standards, benchmarks, or certification.

Non-toxic = not harmful to health or environment
Non-toxic or “clean” implies the products contain ingredients (natural or synthetic) that are not harmful to your health or the environment. This term is usually used for beauty/cosmetic products.

Organic = certification of production
Organic is a legally defined term used to certify products as being produced in a specific way, sans artificial fertilisers, synthetic chemicals, pesticides or herbicides. Organic certifications can be applied at any level of the supply chain from seed suppliers, farmers and food processors or clothing manufacturers to retailers and restaurants. Such certifications are administered by either independent organisations or government agencies, this varies in every country.

Ethical = Standards of human conduct
Ethical refers to the basic concepts and fundamental principles of decent human conduct. It refers to the working conditions of workers who produce the products, as well as how well they are paid for their work. Ethical businesses are those with good working conditions and fair wages for their employees, have a transparent supply chain and aim to reduce their negative impact on people and the environment. It is a broad term that is not certified or precisely defined, but it’s still quite useful for describing in general the type of products you want to buy.

Handmade = Made by hand
Handmade products are crafts made from only hands and tools rather than machines. Handmade products are usually of much better quality than those that are massed produced. Largely “local” products are handmade i.e. grown, produced, processed, made or crafted and then sold within a certain area. However, the fact that something was handmade doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sustainable.

Originally written for