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Sustainability vs. Eco-Friendly? A Guide to Green Lingo

sustainability vs. eco friendly

Before we walk through sustainability vs. eco friendly you need to understand some key information. In the last 270-ish years, we’ve emitted about 1.4 trillion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, with half of that occurring in the last 35-50 years. Consequently, five of the hottest years on record occurred in the past decade. And if greenhouse gas emissions continue at this pace, temperatures by the century’s end could be up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 1901-1960 average.

With these climatic challenges staring us in the face, naturally, folks are chatting up a storm about environmental issues.

As a result, two terms keep popping up: eco-friendly and sustainability.

Pretty similar concepts, right? Sure, they’re used interchangeably, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the same. Each term carries its own unique meaning.

So there’s no more confusion; let’s dive deep into the world of eco-friendly sustainability, dissecting the differences between both concepts.

What Does Sustainable Mean?

Before we dive head first into explaining sustainability vs eco friendly, let’s start by unraveling the term “sustainable.” The United Nations Brundtland Commission offers the following definition of sustainability: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

That makes sense, right? Sure.

However, it’s important to highlight that sustainability goes beyond the practice of resource management—it’s also about balancing social, environmental, and economic factors. These three main components also referred to as people, planet, and prosperity, are known as the “Triple Bottom Line.” Let’s dive into each a little deeper:

People

Social sustainability promotes equity, justice, and well-being for all people, regardless of their background. These initiatives tackle poverty, inequality, and human rights to build strong, inclusive communities. This is a worthy cause, as an estimated 3.2 billion people are adversely affected by land degradation, highlighting the need for collective action to protect our ecosystems and maintain a healthy, inclusive society.

Planet

Environmental sustainability strives to preserve our planet’s natural resources, ecosystems, and biodiversity. We’re talking about reducing waste, being energy-savvy, and protecting habitats to ensure our environment remains healthy and resilient. And here’s why: the world’s population is currently consuming 1.6 planets worth of resources per year, a trend that simply isn’t sustainable over the long run.

Prosperity

Economic sustainability, ideally, creates stable, prosperous economies that support the needs of present and future generations. These initiatives encompass fair trade, responsible consumption, and long-lasting financial growth without depleting resources or causing environmental harm. And guess what? A healthy environment and a prosperous economy can go hand in hand—switching to sustainable practices could save us a whopping $26 trillion by 2030.

Sustainability doesn’t just have macroeconomic benefits, however. Having recently secured $14.5M of Series A funding, we’re a great example of how sustainable initiatives and market demand can benefit businesses on an individual level.

That’s a wrap on sustainability. Let’s now move on to the term eco-friendly.

What Does Eco-Friendly Mean?

Again, before explaining sustainability vs eco friendly we’ll turn to Merriam-Webster once again for guidance. Eco-friendly is simply defined as “not environmentally harmful.” In essence, eco-friendly practices and products aim to reduce or,  ideally, eliminate negative environmental impacts. Recycling paper is a perfect example of an eco-friendly practice that reduces pressure on natural resources. This initiative saves 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space, 17 trees, 682 gallons of oil, 4,100 kWh of energy, and 7,000 gallons of water per ton. More importantly, it cuts gas emissions by 25 percent (pretty cool, huh?).

sustainability vs. eco friendly

While the concept of eco-friendly is simple enough to grasp, unfortunately, the term is often too broad and ambiguous, making it a go-to word used in greenwashing and other less-than-ethical practices—precisely why the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has established guidelines for companies claiming to be eco-friendly.

The FTC’s Green Guides, as they are referred to, advise businesses to

  • Avoid vague language and, instead, be clear and specific when qualifying general claims with environmental benefits.
  • Provide solid evidence to support eco-friendly benefits like compostability, degradability, and non-toxicity.
  • Disclose any potential conflicts of interest between a brand and certifying organizations.
  • Be transparent about recycling facilities and recycled content in products.
  • Specify the source of renewable energy used and avoid exaggerating its use.
  • Clearly explain the use of renewable materials in products.
  • Accurately represent source reduction claims to avoid deception.

Are Eco-Friendly and Sustainability The Same Thing?

Okay, you now have a rough idea of what each term means, so let’s dive into the crux of it – sustainability vs. eco friendly. Are eco-friendly and sustainability two sides of the same coin? No, not exactly. While both concepts contribute to a healthier environment, there’s a slight difference in their approach and scope.

Eco-friendly is all about making choices that are kind to the environment right now. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are sustainable in the long run. Eco-friendly initiatives take small, thoughtful steps to reduce harm but may not quite be the entire solution.

On the other hand, sustainability is a broader concept that includes eco-friendly initiatives but goes beyond them—it’s also about finding a balance between our social and economic needs and the environment’s ability to support us in the long run. And unlike eco-friendly practices, sustainable initiatives aim not just to reduce harm but also to preserve resources and guarantee the planet’s long-term health.

Are Eco-Friendly Products Sustainable?

Here’s the short and sweet answer: not always. This might come as a bit of a surprise, right? To clarify, let’s break down why eco-friendly products aren’t always sustainable.

Though the FTC’s guidelines exist for eco-friendly product claims, the Green Guidelines aren’t enforceable. The FTC considers them to be “administrative interpretations of the FTC Act as applied to environmental claims.” Meaning that just because something is labeled as eco-friendly doesn’t qualify it as sustainable.

Remember, sustainability goes beyond just reducing harm to the environment. It also encompasses the social and economic aspects that impact the planet’s health. So, while eco-friendly products are a step in the right direction, they may not check all the boxes required to be considered sustainable—precisely why the term eco-friendly is easily and, unfortunately, regularly leveraged in greenwashing tactics.

That’s certainly not to say that eco-friendly products don’t have a role to play in moving toward a more sustainable future, however. For instance, eco-friendly products have already helped us kick a huge environmental goal.

Thanks to the global banning of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and a move toward eco-friendly alternative hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the ozone layer “hole” is expected to be healed by 2040 (nice!). So there’s no doubt with collective efforts, eco-friendly initiatives can be a big step toward a sustainable future.

Although, as with most things, the issue around ozone concentrations and the move to eco-friendly alternatives is a touch more nuanced than first meets the eye. The problem? While HFCs and HCFCs are much less harmful in terms of ozone depletion than CFCs, hydrofluorocarbons, specifically HFC-134a, come with a significant downside. Over a 20-year period, they have a global warming potential of 3,400 times that of carbon dioxide.

Yep, you read that right, 3,400x.

So, in a nutshell, it’s important to dig a little deeper when looking at products labeled as eco-friendly. Sure, they might be gentler on the environment than less eco-friendly alternatives, but are they also part of a bigger plan to ensure a healthier planet for future generations? That’s the question you should ask yourself when hunting for truly sustainable products.

If you want more guidance on sustainable shopping, shoot on over to our guide on sustainable online shopping.

How To Know If You’re Shopping Sustainably

Navigating the world of sustainable shopping can feel a bit overwhelming, but don’t worry—we’ve got your back. Jump on over to our guide on how to find eco-friendly places to shop, or keep reading ‘cause we’re going to share some handy tips to help you make more sustainable shopping choices.

Look for Certified B-Corps

Certified B-Corps are businesses committed to social and environmental responsibility. These companies undergo rigorous evaluations and must meet the highest social and environmental performance standards.

If you’d like to easily find sustainably-minded businesses that have registered as B-Corps, check out the BCorporation’s website. Here, you’ll discover leading Certified B Corporations from around the globe and feel confident knowing that your purchases support companies that prioritize sustainability.

And guess what? Consumer choices carry serious weight.

Interestingly, 66 percent of Americans across all demographics, and 80 percent of younger Americans, ages 18-34, are willing to pay more for sustainable products over their less eco-friendly counterparts. While splashing more cash on sustainable options isn’t always feasible for everyone, it’s important to recognize that sustainable products often boast superior durability. Something businesses can tap into as a unique selling point—specifically, longer product lifespans and, consequently, a lower cost per use is beneficial for both a consumer’s wallet and the environment.

So by choosing to support Certified B-Corps, and, when possible, paying a touch more for sustainable options, consumers are sending a clear message to non-certified competitors that reducing their impact on the environment is paramount to the success of their business.

Investigate Production Processes and Materials

When it comes to assessing a product’s sustainability, it’s essential to peek behind the curtain and see how the magic happens. We’re talkin’ production processes and materials, folks. This means considering where the product’s raw materials were sourced, if fair trade practices are used, or how far the item traveled to arrive at your front door.

For example, if a product is made of virgin plastics, shipped halfway around the world, or manufactured under unfair labor practices, chances are it’s not exactly the poster child for sustainability or eco-friendliness. That is precisely why it’s important for us to take a closer look at the environmental consequences of the products we buy and to ensure that there is reputable verification supporting these claims. Our collective actions can help turn the tide and make a difference for our planet and the communities that source and manufacture the products we purchase.

Opt for Carbon-Neutral Shipping

So we understand how to find environmentally responsible companies to support and focus on buying sustainably sourced products—way to go. Now, to make your shopping experience even more sustainable, why not consider carbon-neutral shipping options?

Carbon-neutral shipping means offsetting the carbon emissions created during transportation, often through projects like reforestation or renewable energy development.

Many online retailers are now hopping on the carbon-neutral shipping bandwagon, which helps you reduce your carbon footprint while still enjoying the convenience of online shopping. Just to put things into perspective, in 2019, the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere hit its highest point in 3 million years—around 415 parts per million (ppm). So, when you’re indulging in your next shopping spree, like browsing for sustainable dog products, women’s sustainable clothing brands, or sustainable activewear, opting for carbon-neutral shipping makes a real difference.

Hopefully, you now have a keen understanding of sustainability vs. eco friendly. And, if you’re an online business owner looking to up your sustainability game, consider adding a carbon-neutral checkout option with EcoCart. Request a demo today to learn how EcoCart can help you limit your business’s carbon footprint and make a positive environmental impact.

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