Some people love shopping, others don’t. I happen to fall into the don’t category. When I do shop, I want to buy eco-friendly products, but it can be difficult to tell what is eco-friendly and what is eco-faking.
I spend so much time trying to decipher descriptions and figure out what’s truly eco-friendly, that I just give up sometimes. But with the right eco-friendly words in mind, you and I can decode descriptions and tell the real from the fake.
Want to skip the hassle altogether? Read my blog about how EarthHero will do all the work for you.
Table of Contents
The first word you need to know is greenwashing. Greenwashing is when a company tries to pass a product off as eco-friendly, even though it’s not. They use words like, “natural,” or they might use a friendly sounding brand name, or even just use brown and green packaging to give a superficial impression of greenness.
Don’t be fooled by greenwashing, use this list of eco-friendly words and terms to help you find the real deal. I’ve broken them into three categories:
- Sourcing describes where or how the materials for production were grown or obtained.
- Manufacturing refers to the actual process of creating the product. This area also has terms that apply to shipping and packaging.
- End-of-life is what will happen when you are done with the product.
These words describe the practices used to obtain materials or the type of material used to make the product.
Fair trade is focused on the people doing to work of growing, harvesting, or crafting either the materials or the product itself. Many companies are willing to take advantage of laborers, farmers, and crafters by underpaying them or leveraging power over them.
Watch for Fair Trade Certified products if you want to purchase ethically sourced products.
The word “natural” means a lot of things, primarily, “existing in or caused by nature.” This word is often used in greenwashing by claiming “natural ingredients.” Buyer beware that many toxin-laden products do contain at least one natural ingredient. So simply stating “natural ingredients” isn’t enough to be considered eco-friendly.
In fact, the United States has not defined the term “natural” at all. Instead, look for “All Natural,” but look closely, they may be referring to a specific ingredient, rather than the entire product.
An organic compound is any compound that contains carbon. I have a friend who loves to point this out when the term “organic” comes up in conversations about food.
But for our purposes, organic products—usually food and clothing—are those where the ingredients were grown without the aid of synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), petroleum-based fertilizers, and sewage sludge-based fertilizers. (Doesn’t that sound nice.)
Organic meats, dairy, and eggs must come from livestock raised without hormones or antibiotics, fed with organic feed, and given access to the outdoors.
People complain about the expense, but truly, it’s worth it…I mean, sewage sludge-based fertilizers????? Yuuuuucccckkkkkk.
Reclaimed mostly refers to lumber that is saved when its original purpose has come to an end. It’s usually processed wood coming from a deck, old barns, factories, palettes, or even wine barrels.
Reclaimed materials have not been put through a recycling process. It’s more like they are just pulled from one thing, maybe refurbished a bit, and then put to a new use.
Technically you can reclaim other materials, even rubber, and asphalt. But products made from reclaimed lumber are the most common.
Sustainably Sourced or Harvested
If something is labeled as sustainably sourced or harvested, that means the growers are following sustainable practices when they plant, grow, and/or harvest their crops. It may also apply to materials that are not farmed but rather found growing in the wild. Again, it just means that the people collecting it are doing so carefully and respectfully.
Examples of sustainable practices: rotating crops, increasing the biodiversity of crops or livestock, using drip irrigation, using agroforestry.
If you see that something was made from recycled materials, it simply means that the raw materials used came from something that went through the recycling process.
Manufacturing with recycled materials uses far less energy and water than manufacturing processes for virgin materials. (Hooray!) Some materials get a whole new perspective after being recycled and some become a second life for their original purpose.
Recycled plastic bags are often used to make decking and playground equipment, while recycled paper usually becomes more paper.
Upcycling is not the same as recycling. Recycled materials are broken down, often melted or pressed into a new source of that same material.
Upcycled items generally take an existing item and make it serve a new purpose. For example, my friend (the same one who likes to argue about what “organic” means) takes old pipes and bottles and such and turns them into lamps. Her’s one he made from a milk can.
The idea behind upcycling is usually to wait until the original thing has reached its end-of-life stage and no longer serves its purpose. Then, give it a new life and possibly a whole new purpose.
These terms refer to manufacturing processes and ingredients or materials used.
Carbon neutral can refer to either shipping or manufacturing. Either way, it means that the company is taking steps to counterbalance the carbon output of the process. Sometimes this means the process itself is carbon neutral, perhaps using only renewable energy sources.
Other times it means that the company is paying a carbon offset fee to companies like CarbonFund who use the money to do things like plant trees to absorb the carbon.
Low impact usually refers to dyes or inks. It just means that they have a smaller impact on the environment than their traditional counterparts. They use less water and leave less behind to escape into the ecosystem.
The cruelty-free label on products indicates that no animal testing was done for the product. Only willing, human subjects were tested on.
If you’ve ever read about the horrific things they do to animals in the cosmetic industry (among others), you’ll be looking for this tag. It also has an official certification process, so watch out for greenwashing by looking for the certification symbols.