What is the difference between being ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘sustainable’?
We know it can be confusing so we have broken down the terms in our latest blog post.
‘Green’ and ‘Green Living’
Collins Dictionary defines Green to mean something that “harms the environment as little as possible”. So ‘green living’ then is a way to describe a perceived way of life to help protect the environment.
The term green is now routinely used in everyday speech to mean pretty much anything related to the environment and its protections. Green living is a commonly used term which at the time of my last Google, returned over 3,510,000,000 results.
For many, being Green is thought of as actions such as recycling single use plastics or home composting food waste. The Guardian wrote a concise yet helpful article in 2020 titled ‘50 simple ways to make your life greener’ which we think is well worth a read, especially for people who are just starting out on their sustainable journeys. We agree that being ‘green’ is important in the fight against environmental damage and also a great way to generate conversation around our consumerist activities and how they impact the planet, but beware of the 'greenwash' imposters.
The term ‘green’ can sometimes be used to ‘greenwash’ a product or service. Ethical Consumer has written an informative article about Greenwashing which is well worth a read. They define it as:
“Greenwashing is used to describe the practice of companies launching adverts, campaigns, products etc. under the pretence that they are environmentally beneficial, often in contradiction to their environmental and sustainability record in general.”
Greenwashing is also a concern for The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) who announced in November 2020 that they are worries about some companies using greenwashing tactics intended to ‘dupe’ customers and announced a new initiative to investigate potentially misleading ‘green’ claims.
That said, all of the terms discussed here can be subject to misrepresentation and consumers should always be on the lookout for such claims. Look for vague statements or images being used that imply something is environmentally conscious without any evidence to support such a suggestion or a claim.
Eco-friendly is less broad than the term green. It means that something doesn’t harm the planet. It is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as something which is ‘designed to have little or no damaging effect on the environment. This can include any product, service, business or activity etc that has been designed (or created) with environmental protection at its core.
Being eco-friendly is about being conscious of your environmental footprint by design. There are now many companies producing eco-friendly products that have woven their environmental concerns into their product developments and organisational policies. These companies typically go to great lengths to make their eco-friendliness known with clear and factual information on their packaging, websites, social media sites and literature.
Many of these eco-friendly companies are small or micro businesses that are rooted in their local communities. We believe that companies like this are an integral part of our fight for a more sustainable future.
The term Sustainability is more complicated than it might seem and always has an eye to the future, not just the here and now. Dictionary.Com defines ‘Sustainability’ to mean “The quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance”
So, under the term Sustainable, we can also include eco-friendly and green products and services, but it is important to stress that green doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable. For instance, a product made from renewable or recycled resources might be considered green or eco-friendly but, if a life-cycle analysis shows that it required a lot of energy to manufacture and ship to you, or if there isn’t a proper way to dispose of the product, or perhaps the product uses ingredients etc that exploit labour or environments, then it’s not considered sustainable.
In many cases, it is very difficult, if not impossible for the regular consumer, to determine the life-cycle impact of a product or company. In reality, there has been a huge shift in consumer understanding and increased interest in sustainable products but to date, it is still too costly, time consuming and challenging (due to lack of manufacturing methods for example) for most products and businesses to be fully/wholly sustainable. Rather, some products and businesses are simply more sustainable compared to the alternatives – and we thank them immensely for their efforts.
We believe in supporting products and businesses who are doing their utmost to help turn the tide and be as sustainable as possible – because without these front-runners demonstrating the will, foresight and crucially that there is a huge demand for such products and change –
- we might never be able to get big business and governments on board to make the policy-level changes that we believe are required to become truly sustainable.
Sustainability is a complicated subject upon which entire Degree qualifications are produced but we feel we need to delve a little deeper into what Sustainability means, so that we can get a better understanding.
To do this, we should first look at the Brundlandt Report which contains perhaps the best and certainly the most commonly recognised explanation of sustainability. The Brundtland Commission in 1987, documented sustainable development definition as:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The report states further that “the "environment" is where we all live; and "development" is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable."
The report is clear, that in order to have sustainable lives and futures, that we need to look after our planet, our resources and our people to ensure that we can hand over our planet in a healthy condition to our children and grandchildren.
More recently, The United Nations created a series of 17 Sustainable Development Goals. These goals “are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere.” These goals align with the Brundtland report and 3 pillars of Sustainability.
The three pillars consist of:
Environment; Social; Economy
All must be balanced in harmony in order to achieve true sustainability:
Environmental Sustainability: means to live within the means of our planet's natural resources and to ensure that we are consuming our natural resources, such as materials, energy fuels, land, water…etc, at a sustainable rate. Environmental sustainability should not be confused with full sustainability, which also need to balance economic and social factors.
Economic Sustainability: requires that a business or country carefully balances the use of its resources to produce an operational profit. Without an operational profit, a business cannot sustain its activities. Without acting responsibly and using its resources efficiently a company will not be able to sustain its activities in the longer term.
Social Sustainability: Social sustainability is the ability of society, or any social system, to persistently achieve a good level of social wellbeing. Achieving social sustainability ensures that the social wellbeing of a country, an organisation, or a community can be maintained in the long term.
It is often said that the only truly sustainable product is the one we don't buy. We agree in part, but it also isn't that simple. We all have to consume. We all need clothes, especially growing children. Amongst other things, we all need to wash, to eat, to clean etc. Whether we like it or not, we live in a consumerist society and we believe consuming less and more wisely would be the ultimate aim. An aim that would benefit hugely from policymakers adopting a circular economic model.
The Ellen McArthur Foundation is an important organisation in the campaign for a circular economy and sustainable future. They describe circular economy as:
“A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.”
A circular economy is one that moves away from the existing linear line of
production – consumption – refuse
to an economic model where waste is designed out and recycling is designed in.
To our minds, this, along with the 3 pillars of sustainability is the ultimate goal, but we are a long way from this becoming reality. With every new eco-friendly product designed and sold, we send a message to policymakers that we want change, and we take one - albeit tiny - step closer to a more sustainable future.
We know sustainability is a huge topic but we hope this blog helps to differentiate between what is meant by ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’.
We have only skimmed these topics as an overview and this blog should not be taken as a full description/complete explanation.
We have provided links throughout to help provide more detailed information/further reading relating to the subject being discussed but as always, we cannot be liable for content, security etc of these third-party links and we ask you use due diligence when using such links.