The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

What’s the Difference Between Green, Sustainable, Eco-Friendly, Ethical, Fair Trade, Clean, Organic, Non-Toxic, and Conscious?

By Nina Simons

Sustainable, Green, Eco-Friendly, and Ethical: The careless practice of using these terms lightly and synonymously, especially by marketers, has created a bit of confusion.

All of these terms do point to awareness, as well as environmental and social responsibility (though most are not strict legal or certified definitions) so you could technically use them interchangeably. But there are small differences in meaning that are important to define.

To clear up the confusion, here are some basic guidelines for those who are curious about the many shades of green:


Green vs. Eco-friendly vs. Sustainable

The meaning of the word “green” has long outgrown the color. It’s now frequently used in a colloquial speech to apply to almost everything related to benefiting the environment, from the movement to architecture and fashion.

Eco-friendly isn’t quite so broad. It means that something doesn’t harm the planet.

But sustainable is the most precisely defined term here, and represents the wide scope of issues and activities that, according to the United Nations, do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

Sustainability sets the focus on the future. It means the item or action is generating environmental, social and economic benefits, while not using up too many resources or causing pollution. Yes, all these aspects are covered under this one word.

Compared to ‘”green” and “eco-friendly,” sustainability has much higher standards. Sustainability includes eco-friendly activities and green products, but green doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable. For instance, a product made from renewable resources is considered green, yet if a life-cycle analysis shows that it required a lot of energy to manufacture and ship to you, and if there isn’t a proper way to dispose of the product, then it’s not considered sustainable.

To be honest, there’s not much out there in the consumer product world that is truly sustainable. Rather, some products are simply more sustainable compared to the alternatives.

For all those reasons, we prefer using sustainable on EcoCult. Though, we’ll sometimes use eco or eco-friendly because that is what people are searching for.

Clean vs. Nontoxic vs. Organic

Rising demand for safe products, mainly in the wellness and beauty industries, created the terms clean and nontoxic, which are very similar. Clean implies ingredients — natural or synthetic — that are not harmful to your health. Nontoxic products are free from ingredients that can harm your health or the environment. When talking about beauty or cleaning products, we usually use nontoxic on EcoCult, just because it feels more precise and accurate than the lifestyle-y term clean.

Organic is a legally defined term, which is used by the USDA to certify food, beauty products, and other agricultural products as being produced in a very specific way – mainly, as free from synthetic chemicals that are harmful to the environment and humans. So we only use this term if we’re talking about food, a restaurant, a beauty product, etc. that uses certified organic ingredients.

Ethical vs. Fair Trade vs. Artisan

Since the 1980s, global trade has changed for the better, especially in developing parts of the world.

It started with the Fair trade movement that protected coffee, cocoa and tea producers from low international prices. This is a precisely defined term that only comes with certification from an international governing body, such as Fair Trade Certified, the Fair Trade Federation, Equal Exchange, or the World Fair Trade Organization. We only use it on EcoCult when something has been certified and has a logo denoting so.

The ethical trade movement refers to the working conditions of workers who produce clothes, toys, food, and other products for multinational companies, as well as how well they are paid for their work. It is a broad term that is not certified or precisely defined, but it’s still quite useful for describing in general the type of products you want to buy.

The term artisan stands as opposed to the industrial process of production. Artisan products are usually handmade and crafted with minimal automation by skilled workers in developing countries. However, the fact that something was handmade doesn’t mean that it’s sustainable.

That’s why on EcoCult we usually use ethical separately from sustainable, as an and/or description.

Conscious vs. Thoughtful

The trendy term conscious refers to consumer awareness and high standards regarding health and environment. It can also sometimes include the realms of spirituality and wellness. The conscious consumer knows how to read labels and will, most likely, spend extra money on a product that is organic, sustainable, or animal-friendly. She probably also practices yoga and meditation. Yup, it’s a lifestyle word, so we usually use it to describe a person (“conscious bride”), a business, or a way of thinking about things, not a specific product.

The definition of thoughtful is showing consideration of other people’s needs and being well-informed on a topic before making a decision or forming an opinion. Being thoughtful encompasses all the qualities mentioned above and can stand as the overarching goal.

Thoughtfulness goes beyond being a responsible shopper and recycler. Buying local products is fine, but the analytical approach when it comes to reading labels or choosing an eco-friendly package is just the start.

Being truly thoughtful and aware has to do with embracing a completely new lifestyle where less is more. Embrace slow fashion, buy less and get rid of excessive items in your home. Grow your own food or shop at the farmer’s market. Learn how to make homemade skin care products with natural ingredients. Decontaminate your surroundings by getting rid of pollutants and clutter. Sell and donate stuff you don’t need. Choose to live in a small home in a walkable neighborhood with public transit. Read a lot of high quality journalism on the topics of the environment and human rights, and be an involved citizen.

If we wish anything for the readers of EcoCult, it’s that they are thoughtful in how they go about the world. And in return, we strive to be thoughtful in how we write and share information with you on fashion, travel, and beauty.

It’s the best we can do in this often unfair and contaminated world of ours.

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