Green Terminology for Small Business: What's the Difference Between Sustainable, Eco-friendly, Zero Waste, Ethical, Vegan, Organic & Socially Responsible?


As green terms such as Sustainability, Eco-friendly, Ethically Made, and even the word green itself, become more and more common, so does their misuse.  Depending on the brand, when used, these words can mean a whole lot or not a lot at all - so you can understand why they’re creating a bit of confusion amongst consumers and small business owners wanting to do the right thing. 


Many of the terms we’ve listed in this post don’t actually have strict legal definitions or requirements for use, so technically, you and your small business can use them without any proof of green business practices.  However, if you are wanting to create a brand that is transparent and honest, you must not only commit to one or several of these terms through your business practices - usually within your product’s life cycle (which you can read more about here), but you must also communicate your sustainability efforts correctly and effectively to avoid green washing.  In this post we’ll break down the most common terms used within the green and eco-friendly space to help you not only understand what they all mean, but to also help increase your brand authority and trust amongst consumers.

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Although there are many different views on what it is and how it can be achieved, Sustainability can be simply defined as the ability to maintain healthy environment, social and economic systems indefinitely, on a local and global scale.  It is argued the economy and society are unable to exist without the environment and therefore are entirely dependent on environmental conditions.  So, the ultimate goal is to achieve an environmentally sustainable product.  However, the terms Sustainability and Sustainable are not interchangeable as they mean slightly different things. Sustainable products are those that provide environmental, social and economic benefits while also minimising impacts on these systems throughout its whole life cycle, from extraction of raw materials to the product’s end of life - in order to achieve overall Sustainability (the concept).




While Green and Eco-friendly have very similar meanings, on one hand, Green is widely used to explain basically anything that is benefits the environment, from business practices to design and products.  However, Eco-friendly or Environmentally Friendly is not so broad and means something that does not harm the planet.




In summary, Ethical refers to the basic concepts and fundamental principles of decent human conduct.  Within the green space, you may have come across ethical clothing and accessories, along with many other items.  The businesses behind this design movement have social (and/or environmental) responsibility at their core.  Ethical businesses are those with good working conditions and fair wages for their employees, have a transparent supply chain and aim to reduce their negative impact on people and the environment.  However, just like Sustainability, Ethical is broad and can mean different things to different people, depending on their values or background. 


Handmade products are crafts made from only hands and tools rather than machines.  Handmade products are usually of much better quality than those that are massed produced.  Whereas Local refers to products, usually food or handmade “artisan” goods, that are grown, produced, processed, made or crafted and then sold within a certain area.  Local foods, for example, are often organic, are less processed and produce less carbon emissions.  Just like many other of the terms mentioned in this post, there is no standard definition for “Local” and therefore, it have many different definitions. 

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Zero Waste is a practice that aims to design (or redesign) and manage products and processes to avoid and eliminate the generation of waste materials as well as conserve and recover natural resources. However, this definition of “Zero Waste” slightly differs from the one used frequently in the green space, which refers to a” ‘Zero Waste Lifestyle”.  Zero Waste living encourages changing behaviour to reduce personal waste consumption - for example, through refusing, reducing, reusing, composting and recycling.  On the other hand, a Plastic-free product is one that does not contain plastic, including disposable plastic, within the design, or use single-use plastics for packaging.




Natural is s product that contains ingredients that are derived from nature and not made or created by humans.  Natural is a term widely used by businesses, both small and big, and due to it not having an legal standards or benchmarks, it can result in consumers receiving false or misleading information.  On the other hand, Certified Organic and Fairtrade products come with certain standards of business practices.


Organic products are those that include ingredients from farming practices that aim to avoid the use of artificial fertilisers or synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides or herbicides.  Organic products, including food and clothing, do not use genetically modified crops, growth promoters or hormones.  Organic farming emphasises the need to maintain and improve land and water quality, animal warfare, human health and environmental sustainability.  Organic certifications can be applied at any level of the supply chain from seed suppliers, farmers and food processors or clothing manufacturers to retailers and restaurants.  Organic certification is administrated by either independent organisations or governments agencies, depending on the country.


Fair Trade is used to refer to the movement and organisations striving towards stable prices, decent working conditions, social and environmental standards and the empowering of farmers and workers around the world.  However, Fairtrade is used to describe the certification system that ensures farmers are paid a minimum Fairtrade price and Fairtrade Premium for their goods. The Fairtrade system allows consumers to identify goods that have met internationally-agreed standards.  These standards are set to work toward social, environmental and economic sustainability.   Products that carry the Fairtrade Mark have been independently audited across the entire supply chain. This ensures that the benefits of Fairtrade are delivered to farmers, and that the nature of these benefits are clearly communicated to consumers. 


In many countries, the term “Organic” is not regulated on product packaging labels and so business are able to use the term without appropriate certifications.  This doesn't necessarily mean that a business doesn't comply with rules and regulations - they may have simply not applied for approval, due to cost etc.  However, there has been several cases of green washing complaints from consumers, especially within Australia, due to misuse, and therefore, if you are wanting to create a product, or already have one, that is labelled Organic or Fairtrade, it is best to apply for an approved certification to ensure a customer trust and business transparency.

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The term Environmentally Conscious or just Conscious, is a lifestyle word that basically refers to a business that is aware of the impact it has on its surrounding environment.  Conscious is also used to describe consumers i.e. conscious consumer.  Conscious Consumers are those who are increasingly aware of purchasing decisions and buying habits.  They will tend to do their research and read labels before investing in a new product - which will usually be from a brand with Sustainability at its core.  A Socially Responsible Business (SRB) is one that acts in the best interest of society and the environment as a whole. Social Responsibility, as it applies to business, is known as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).  CSR creates positive changes and makes valuable contributions to the stakeholders of the business, such as the local community or customers.  A SRB is both profit-oriented and socially responsible as these companies seek to make financial gains, and at the same time, aim to improve the well-being of the community.  However, in recent years, this term has been somewhat replaced by Shared Value due to large corporations abusing the term - giving back to hide the negative social and environmental impacts of their business practices or supply chain.  Shared Value is strategy in which companies solve social and environmental problems through new, creative and innovative business ideas and projects.




In the last few years, the debate around Palm Oil has gained serious attention.  Palm Oil comes from Palm Fruit or the Palm Oil Tree, which is native to West Africa but is grown in hot, wet climates all over the world.  90% of Palm Oil is now produced in Indonesia and Malaysia.  Palm Oil is the most widely produced and consumed vegetable oil on the planet, with half of all packaged products containing it - from the ice cream in your freezer to lipstick in your purse.  However, Palm Oil itself is not the issue; it’s to do with the way it is harvested.  Clearing for Palm Oil plantations has destroyed vast areas of rainforest and these plantations are expanding more rapidly than almost any other agricultural commodity. Several endangered species including elephants, orangutans, rhinos and tigers have lost their native habitats and many Indigenous people have been forced off their land.  Intensive Palm Oil production is also creating all kinds of environmental degradation, including air, soil and water pollution and soil erosion as well as contributing to climate change. 


Due to pressure from large NGOs and conscious consumers to boycott Palm Oil products all together, many businesses are going back to the drawing board to reassess their product’s ingredients.  It may not always be a viable option for businesses to completely remove Palm Oil and Palm Oil derived ingredients from their products, and therefore, they are instead choosing to use Sustainable Palm Oil alternatives.  Basically, Sustainable Palm Oil does make businesses profitable while not harming people or the environment. To achieve this, new policies have been adopted that do not support deforestation or exploitation and require farmers to stop burning land for clearing, assess land for high carbon stock and high conservation value before developing new plantations, and obtain land use permission from communities.




A product that is Vegan does not contain any animal or animal-derived ingredients.  To many, the term “Vegan” also means that a product is free from animal testing as well.  Vegan products are usually those of food, skincare, make up or accessories.  In recent years, there has been a rise of “Vegan Leather” clothing and fashion accessories, and although this material is animal-free, it isn’t always the most sustainable option, as it is often made from synthetics like plastic - so make sure you’re being transparent with your customers! Cruelty-free products, on the other hand, have no form of animal testing at any point in the life cycle of a brand’s product.  However, a product can be Cruelty-Free can still contain animal or animal derived ingredients (meaning it is not a Vegan product).


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Degradable, Biodegradable and Compostable are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually not the same thing.  Degradable products and plastics don't require living organisms as a part of the breakdown process.  Chemical additives are instead used in the plastic that allow the product to break down quicker than a standard plastic product usually would.  Degradable material can be even worse for the natural environment, as when they disintegrate, they breakdown (or should I say, break up) into smaller and smaller pieces (microplastics).


Biodegradable plastic is made from plant-based materials like corn and wheat starch rather than petroleum. However, Biodegradable materials require certain conditions for the material to breakdown - temperature needs to reach over 50 degrees Celsius and the plastic would need to be continuously exposed to UV light.  If Biodegradable plastic makes its way into the ocean through the litter stream, this material would not be able to reach these conditions and therefore pose the threat of being consumed by marine life.  Biodegradable plastics that are sent to landfill would also not have access to oxygen and would produce toxic landfill gases such as methane, therefore further contributing to climate change.


Compostable materials, especially in the form of delivery packaging or parcels, can be incredibly misleading for the average consumer or business owner.  Not only do some people believe it’s totally fine to put all Compostable packaging into a home compost system, but others, that I’ve spoken to about this topic, actually believe you can pop it straight into your landfill bin and it will breakdown - ahhh!  Just like Biodegradable plastics, Compostable plastics also need certain conditions and while there are new packaging options available which can be composted at home, the majority of Compostable materials require specific environments inside composting facilities.  Home Compostable packaging options are a great alternative to single-use petroleum-based satchels, however, be aware they only target a specific market - those who are already committed to a sustainable lifestyle and/or those who already own a compost bin.


Although many of these terms are not interchangeable, they can be used together.  A product that is Eco-friendly can also be Certified Organic; a product that is Zero Waste can also be Palm Oil Free, and so on.  However, a Vegan product doesn’t necessarily mean the product is sustainable - it really depends on your own individual, your business’s and your customer’s values.  There is also never a 100% perfect outcome for any of these terms described above.  It is best to speak about sustainability as being more or less sustainable than other products on the market or than previous designs, and constantly strive to adapt and improve your business practices.

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Lauren GrimshawComment