As people become more conscious of their carbon footprint, they are starting to investigate the different terms and labels that surround them. Which is better: sustainable vs eco friendly?
Whether you see these labels on packaging or you are reflecting on your own practices, let’s break down the two terms and see how they related.
Looking for something specific? Jump ahead to find the answers to these questions.
Sustainable vs. Eco Friendly
What does eco friendly mean?
Simply put, “eco” refers to the environment and friendly, of course, means friendly.
Eco friendly means earth-friendly or environmentally friendly.
If you are living an eco-friendly life, you are making choices that are kind to the earth or the environment.
What does eco friendly living look like?
- Purchasing reusable items to avoid disposables
- Using cleaners with biodegradable cleaning agents
- Reusing or recycling items that would otherwise be trash
Sometimes it can be hard to define eco friendly products because brands will slap a “green” label to make some money. We call this practice greenwashing.
Keep in mind that truly eco friendly products should have a light footprint on the earth.
They should not be harmful to make, use, or dispose of.
What does sustainable living mean?
According to the UN, sustainability means:
“…sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”United Nation Brundtland Commission, 1987
Sustainability is about living in a way that the earth can maintain.
Will the materials and fibers in your products decompose naturally?
Or, will those products get stuck in a landfill?
In a sustainable system, we take materials from the earth, use or consume them, and then they should be able to return to the earth eventually.
If you think about a natural ecosystem, you can see that decay is part of a natural cycle. Plants and animals grow, feed, and die, which feeds other creatures and sends materials back into the soil.
To live sustainably, you need to be thoughtful about where your possessions come from and what happens to them when you are done with them.
What does sustainability look like?
As we wrap our minds around the sustainable living framework for individual consumers, it is helpful to see what sort of terms or phrases may show up.
- Locally grown or produced
- Biodegradable & compostable materials and packaging
- Foraged, grass-fed, or pasture-raised (for animal products)
- Reusable packaging (often plastic-free)
To assess if something is sustainable, think about its entire lifecycle.
What resources did the manufacturer need to create the product?
Will this product break down naturally?
If you’re asking these questions, you are on the path to going zero waste! The goal with zero waste is to reduce what we send to a landfill and aim for naturally compostable items instead.
Why is sustainability important?
Sustainability is not a new concept.
You can think of sustainability as the natural order of growth and decay. The earth inherently follows this cycle in different ways across the planet.
Sustainable living is the attempt to replicate that natural cycle of growth and decay in our own personal lives.
Sustainability is a huge and important idea because as the world’s population increases, the earth needs to provide resources for each individual.
One walk around a Target shows that the average American’s consumer choices are not sustainable.
As that highly marketed and plastic-packaged lifestyle spreads around the globe, we are looking at even greater consumption of resources and much more plastic waste.
The problem with plastic
Remember what we talked about above with the natural growth and decay process?
Plastic does not fit into that very well.
There are different ways to make plastic including synthetic and bio-based plastics.
Refineries convert fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas into raw materials for plastics. These are natural products, but we extract them far faster than the earth can replace them.
Petroleum processing creates various petrochemicals which plastic manufacturers use to create a wide variety of different substances, including plastics, chemical solvents, and more.
The process of turning fossil fuels into plastics is not only harmful for the earth, but also for the workers and people who live near refineries.
Isn’t plastic recyclable?
This is the question, right? If plastic is so useful and recyclable, can’t we just keep processing it and reusing it?
In an ideal world, yes. Plastic is recyclable and could be reused.
However, not really. Only about 9% of all plastics put in the recycling bin are ever recycled.
What are some problems with plastic recycling?
American recycling facilities cannot recycle the wide range of plastic products on the market.
In addition, there isn’t much of a market for the plastic waste we produce, although there could be.
Plus, plastic typically gets downcycled, which means it becomes less and less useful when it gets reprocessed. Eventually, the plastic weakens and becomes landfill waste.
Once plastic sits in a landfill, it breaks into microplastics which are polluting waterways, animals, and even our own bodies.
Taking steps toward circularity
When the plastics we already have can be reused and recycled, we will reach something called circularity. That’s the idea that our economy is circular.
In a circular economy, companies sell products, consumers use them, and their waste goes right back to the company to be reused.
Think about old-school milk deliveries in glass bottles. The consumer just uses the milk; the packaging goes right back to the dairy.
A circular economy and a sustainable living model are really the same thing.
Is it better to be sustainable or eco friendly?
The definitions of sustainable and eco friendly overlap, so they are both good words to use.
However, sustainable is an umbrella term that describes an approach and lifestyle.
Practices and products that are truly eco friendly are sustainable.
Let’s aim to be eco friendly and sustainable.
One problem with “eco friendly”
There’s one issue with the phrase “eco friendly” and that’s greenwashing.
Did you know that eco-friendly, sustainable, and natural products are becoming a marketing boon?
More and more consumers are seeking out organics, compostable packaging, and eco-friendly items.
This means there’s a profit to be made in this sector, which means corporations and companies are going to try to use that term to get you to buy their product.
Often, these products are not any better than conventional products. Yet, they likely charge more and you think you’re making a better consumer choice.
Don’t fall for greenwashing
It’s important that you don’t buy a product simply by the words the company uses to describe them. Instead, take a look at the product overall.
- Compostable or easily recyclable materials (wood, paper or cardboard, glass, aluminum)
- Simple ingredients
- 100% biodegradable cleaning agents
- Regulated terms like certified organic, Fair Trade, B corp, Certified Humane
- Federal eco labels like ENERGY STAR, Safer Choice, and BioPreferred
- Recycled components
Question when you see…
- Plastic packaging
- Fragrance, which is an unregulated term that can include a wide variety of harmful and irritating substances
- Claims are vague (“eco-friendly,” “green,” “natural)
- Synthetic chemicals
There are more signs of greenwashing here, too.
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