If you are new to sustainable living, it can be challenging to wade through the greenwashing and get to the truth of the matter. It can be difficult to work out what is best. Understanding the terminology used is a key step on the road to a better future.
To help you get to the heart of the matter, we've put together this glossary of some key terms you need to know. It should help you understand statements and labelling, and work out how you can reduce your negative impact on other people, and on this planet we call home.
Green / Eco Friendly
The terms green and eco-friendly are generally used interchangeably to speak about whether or not something is good in an environmental context. If something is green or ecologically friendly, it is something that does not do harm to the ecosystems of our planet, or to the creatures that call it home.
Though the word sustainability has come to prominence in recent years, the concept is nothing new. The concept has been around as long as people have been concerned about the future of resources. The idea that we must take care over the basic resources – food, water, energy – that provide our most basic needs has been around as long as we have.
The modern word 'sustainability' comes from a German term 'Nachhaltigkeit' ('sustained yield'). It first appeared in a forestry handbook in 1713. It means never harvesting more than a forest can regenerate. The translated term was first used in English in the mid-19th Century.
Though, in its earliest usage, the term was used in reference to forests, once ecology became a recognised field, the concept of sustainability became much broader. It was used to describe the longevity of any biological system. Then, in the latter half of the 20th Century, the term evolved again. As concern grew over overuse of resources and dependence on finite fossil fuels, the term sustainability was used more in terms of our human society, and how we live on our planet.
In 1987, the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations defined sustainable development as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Today, most definitions of sustainability also include the understanding that we must balance how we meet human needs with the avoidance of degradation or destruction of the natural world. Three key goals define sustainable development today: environmental protection, social development and economic development. Both social and economic development should be constrained by the limits of what our natural world can provide, over the short and longer term.
Natural means 'existing in or formed by nature' (as opposed to something artificial or man-made). But in the context of sustainability, it is important to recognise that just because something is 'natural' that does not necessarily mean that its use is ethical, sustainable or eco-friendly.
Often, natural materials are the better option. But this is not always the case. It is important to look at the entire lifecycle of a product or material and its origins, and what it truly cost. It is only when we look at the true costs of obtaining and using a natural product that we can determine whether or not we are doing the right thing.
The word 'organic' is often used as a synonym for 'natural' when it comes to talking about the world around us. But the words mean different things. The world organic can be defined as 'of living things' – we use it in this way when, for example, we talk about the organic matter in a composting system or in a garden.
But in the context of sustainable production and sustainable products, organic is a term used in a different and narrower way.
Organic items or substances are defined as: the product of a farming system which avoids the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides; growth regulators and livestock feed additives. Irradiation and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or products produced from or by GMOs are also generally prohibited by organic legislation.
While all organic products are natural – not all natural products are organic. Certified organic products are free from all the above. But organic production is about more than just that. Organic agriculture, whether it is for food, for textiles, cleaning or beauty products or for other uses, is also about a 'big picture' approach.
Organic agriculture is a systems approach that works towards environmentally, socially and economically sustainable production.
The term ethical is a subjective rather than objective term. An ethical business or product is one that adheres to (or claims to adhere to) certain ethics – or basic concepts that form fundamental principles for a 'good' framework of human conduct. When a business is (or claims to be) ethical, this means that they adhere to a framework based on a series of morals (or judgements about right and wrong).
In the context of sustainability, an ethical business is generally one which conforms to the ideals of care for the planet, care for humanity, and fair share. But this is a broad term, and one which obviously means different things to different people. For example, one person may feel that it is ethical to choose animal-derived products, as long as there was no cruelty involved in the process, while another may not. Values and background play an important role in determining what 'ethical' really means to each individual.
When it comes to talking about sustainability, you might have heard the term 'biodegradable' and wondered what exactly it means.
If something is biodegradable, that means that it will degrade (break down) naturally (through biological processes) over time.
Natural materials will break down, or biodegrade, through a process known as decomposition. For example, something that is plant-based may break down into carbon, water, and other naturally occurring elements/ minerals. Usually, this will involve micro-organisms- bacteria and fungi - sunlight and water.
Usually, though not always, the definition also includes the idea that the material which is biodegradable will break down (or decompose) in a way that is not harmful to the environment.
Unfortunately, the term biodegradable does not always mean that something is good for the environment. For something to biodegrade harmlessly, it must break down into natural elements without leaving toxins or harmful chemicals behind. Eco-friendly biodegradable materials are also those that will break down relatively quickly.
Some biodegradable materials take far longer than others to break down. Metals, for example, will eventually biodegrade. Steel is technically biodegradable because it will eventually rust through and break down. But that does not necessarily mean it is an eco-friendly material.
Read also: Guide to Choosing Biodegradable Bags
In the case of a natural, plant-based material, the biodegradation process will return the elements that make it up to the earth. Items that will do so relatively quickly in a composting environment, without introducing any toxins or harmful materials to the environment are known as compostable.
All compostable materials are biodegradable. But not all biodegradable products are compostable.
Compostable materials, such as food waste, paper products, and certain starch-based plastics are fully compostable. That means that they will biodegrade naturally and relatively quickly in a home composting system. Micro-organisms will break down the material into a humus, that can be used to enrich the soil.
Some biodegradable materials are truly home compostable, and will break down when placed into a garden composting system, without leaving anything harmful behind. But certain other materials labelled as biodegradable will not decompose in a traditional aerobic home composting system (an oxygenated environment).
PLA, for example, is a popular biodegradable plastic. But it will only decompose when composted in a special facility where very specific composting conditions can be provided. It will not readily biodegrade in a home composting system.
Read also: Composting: A Beginner's Guide
Being vegan means cutting out all animal-derived foods. It usually also involves avoiding the use of any animal-derived products. Vegans usually also avoid any products that are free from animal testing, or which have resulted in harm to animals during their creation.
Vegans often decide to go vegan because they have an ethical belief that using, abusing or eating animals is wrong. But increasingly, people are turning to veganism because it is a more sustainable and eco-friendly choice. Choosing more vegan products, or becoming entirely vegan can often reduce your carbon footprint and limit your negative impact on the planet.
But it is important to understand that something can be vegan and yet may not be the most eco-friendly or sustainable choice. For example, vegan alternative fabrics are often made from plastic, so overall, may cause more harm than good to the planet.
Often, making the right choice involves thinking about our own personal ethical beliefs. We must decide which 'rights' come higher in hierarchy than others.
Some people equate the terms vegan and cruelty free. But while cruelty free products never include any form of animal testing, they may still include animal or animal derived products. So cruelty free products are not always vegan. Again, cruelty free products may also not be the most sustainable or eco-friendly choices over all. So it is important to take all ethical considerations into account when making your choices.
Fair Trade/ Fairtrade
While the terms vegan and cruelty free focus on animals, the term fair trade focusses on the human side of sustainability. Fair trade is a term used to talk about movement and organisations that strive towards equality in markets – for stable working conditions, decent working wages, social and environmental standards and empowerment of producers and growers around the world.
The Fairtrade label is used within a certification system that ensures fair pay for farmers. It is applied to goods that meet certain standards when it comes to social, environmental and economic concerns across their entire supply chain.
A Socially Responsible Business (SRB) is one that acts in the best interest of society and the environment as a whole. Social Responsibility within a business context is known as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). A socially responsible business is one that looks beyond simple profit, and adds value according to the triple bottom line: environmental value, social value, and economic value not just for the company itself but for the community/ nation as a whole.
Read also: Our mission with Eden Reforestation Projects
Zero waste is all about reducing the amount we thrown away. It is about rejecting excess consumption and a throw-away culture and moving towards a circular economy. Often, the focus is on personal consumption, and individuals are encouraged to refuse, reduce, reuse, reclaim and recycle. But zero waste in a broader context goes beyond individual and household waste and looks at entire supply chains, and the waste of natural resources at all levels and in all sectors of society.
Read also: 26 Zero Waste Tips to Apply Everyday