Eco Friendly vs Sustainable: Subtle Difference, Big Impact

It seems every new food or beauty product claims to be ‘organic’, ‘natural’, or ‘sustainable’ to capitalise on the green ‘hype’, but do these buzzwords actually mean anything? How are they different, and can we trust that these products are as good for the planet as they imply?

Click here to skip straight to the terms.

For example, a product made from ‘natural materials’ might be good for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s sustainably produced. A shampoo made from honey plucked straight from a bee’s mouth may make your hair super shiny, but if that bee lives halfway across the world, your shampoo creates additional carbon from importing, and may land you with its non-recyclable packaging after.

This article aims to explain the differences between each term to help make it easier when shopping to find the best products for both yourself and the environment.

Of course, it’s not as straightforward as knowing your terms. Research is required before purchasing if you’re serious about switching to planet-positive products. This can be time-intensive, but you only have to do it once unless you switch product again. It’s also worth experimenting to find the best items to suit your mentality, your body, and your budget.

As previously stated, many brands use these terms carelessly and interchangeably. Many are not legally defined, so you can technically slap ‘organic’ over your Lego packaging as much as you can write ‘brick’.

Organic

‘Organic’ is usually an empty buzzword used by marketers. It can rarely be contested because the meaning is so vague.

An organic product did not use synthetic fertilisers in its production. On a chemistry level, it refers to molecules of two or more carbon atoms. It also alludes to something ‘derived from living matter’ which, when you think about it, could be pretty much anything in its rawest form.

Don’t be fooled by the word ‘organic’. Look at the ingredients list to make sure it really is as good as it sounds.

Natural

‘Natural product’ is a phrase often used to market food and cosmetics for those wanting healthy products without artificial ingredients.

But ‘natural’ can be just as wishy-washy as ‘organic’. Natural ingredients are great, as it means they aren’t synthetic. However, they’ve all been mixed together, and some with man-made ingredients to make one big man-made soup. Again, everything was at some point natural, but once they’re made into a product, they’re kind of synthetic anyway.

Eco/Environmentally Friendly

Often synonymous with ‘green’, these are broad terms which means the making of the product did not harm the environment. However, this does not mean the product is ‘sustainable’. These are non-protected terms, meaning anyone can use them without meeting a set standard of environmental friendliness.

It should mean that the company has taken steps to reduce their impact on the environment, such as better sourcing of their materials and ingredients, or improving the energy efficiency of their manufacturing production by conserving energy and water.

Eco-friendly or environmentally friendly encompasses anything from carbon-neutral processes to what can be considered as causing minimal harm to the planet. Remember that environmentally-friendly doesn’t necessarily mean zero impact to the environment in the long-term.

Sustainable

Sustainability relates to the ability to maintain production of the item without exhausting its natural resources. It considers the future, not only in resources, but also how the process of creating the product affects the environment, which in turn affects the future. In theory, you could keep making these products forever.

If a product is made from renewable resources, it may be considered environmentally-friendly, but if it can’t be reused or recycled, or requires a lot of energy and water to create, it isn’t necessarily sustainable. It’s always worthwhile looking into a company’s processes and reading their sustainability statement – if they have one.

Try not to look for perfectly sustainable products though, as this is rare if not impossible. Looking for the most sustainable product out of your options is likely the best way forward.

Recyclable

Many products are recyclable, but whether you personally can recycle them depends on your local bin collection and recycling centres. For example, products with a 5,6 or 7 plastic resin code can technically be recycled, but aren’t likely to be picked up by your council service.

It’s also worth remembering that even recyclable materials can’t be recycled if they’re fused with non-recyclable materials or spoilt by grease, so consider this before assuming the product’s packaging is more eco-friendly.

Made from Recycled Materials

This term is great if it’s glass or aluminium, which can recycled over and over again, but it’s not so great with recycled plastic, which can only be used once.

Clothes made from recycled plastic bottles and the like, whilst having good intention, can have tiny plastic microfibres separate in the wash and get into water systems where they can be harmful to animals.

According to WRAP, over £140 million in clothing ends up in landfill every year. Try to give your clothes a long life, or give them to charity when you fall out of love with them. You could try fixing your clothes yourself once they start falling apart, or support a local seamstress service.

Sourced Locally

This is one of the best terms to look for on a product. Locally sourced ingredients significantly reduce unnecessary transport of materials. Just make sure ‘sourced locally’ applies to the majority, if not all of the ingredients. It’s great to have a smoothie made with the freshest natural milk from a Yorkshire farm, but not if the mangoes flavouring it have travelled from further abroad than you’ve even been.

When doing your product research, think about the ingredients. Does it sound likely that they’re grown locally? Look for small, independent brands that are less likely to mass produce.

For instance, the deodorant company Kutis sources their ingredients from their local area in Wales and uses recyclable card packaging. Look at the packaging of the product. Sometimes plastic is unavoidable for certain items, but is this particular product more easily recyclable for you, e.g. a number 1, 2 or 3 resin code?

This is easier to find out if you’re looking at the product in a shop, but if you’re shopping online you may need to get in touch with the supplier. This sounds like a lot of work if you’re just buying say, a bottle of conditioner, but it will be worth it once you find your perfect products.

These sort of terms may lull you into a false sense of eco-friendliness. If you really want certainty that they cause minimal environmental harm, don’t take them at face value. Look into the product manufacturing process, their ingredients, and the company ethics, and before you know it you’ll be starting your own blog about the interesting stuff you learn!

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