When starting out on the path to living a more sustainable life, you may become bombarded with many new terms and words. It is important to understand the terminology that is used in the environmental industry so you know what the product or service you are using is doing. In recent years there has been an increase in companies “greenwashing” their products, claiming they can “save the earth”. This can cause a lot of confusion when navigating the environmental world. Check out more on what greenwashing is here.
To help you better navigate your journey in the environmental consumer world, we have compiled a list of common terms seen on products. These are used fairly often by both legitimate environmental friendly products and by greenwashers, so buyer beware!
Biodegradable: refers to any products that break down into natural elements such as carbon dioxide and water vapour by other organisms in the environment. They can be beneficial as they break down much faster than other products, however when disposed of in a landfill, anaerobic (no oxygen) breakdown occurs which produces large amounts of methane. The best way to dispose of these products is in an industrial compost setting or recycling them.
Bioplastic: refers to materials that are biodegradable that are made from renewable sources such as plant materials or agricultural by-products instead of petroleum. However, not all bioplastics are made equally, some may biodegrade naturally, others may need some sort of composting facility to break them down, so it is important to understand what type of product you are using. For example Coca-Cola has a PlantBottle program that makes their beverage bottles from PET which is formulated from petrochemical processes, however 30% of their formulation comes from sugar ethanol. This low percentage means that the bottle is not biodegradable and is a prime greenwashing example.
Carbon footprint: an estimate of how much carbon dioxide is produced to support your lifestyle, essentially it is a measure of the impact you have on the climate based on how much carbon dioxide you produce. This can include everything from travel methods, to where you get your groceries, to your home energy use.
Circular Economy: creating a production system for goods that is designed and developed in order to reduce waste and regenerate the use of the production resources, which can then be recycled and be used to produce more products.
Compostable: refers to any product that breaks down into natural elements but ONLY in a compost setting. This means that they need large amounts of microorganisms as well as heat to fully break down, meaning they take much longer to break down in a traditional landfill.
Degradable: refers to products that are oil-based, such as plastics, which break down by chemical reactions. However, these products can be broken down in anaerobic environments but only into microscopic pieces and not into organic materials. These products should be sent to a recycling facility.
Eco-friendly: refers to any product or service that is not harmful to the environment. Can be used to greenwash a product as there are no restrictions for the term.
Ethical: refers to the conditions of workers who produce products as well as how well they are paid for their work by the large corporations they work for. This is not a certified or precisely defined term but can be useful for making conscious buying decisions.
Fair trade: refers to the movement that promotes better prices, quality working conditions and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers. Products that are labelled “Fair Trade Certified” are verified by an independent certifier.
Green: applies to anything that is related to benefitting the environment, from clothing, cars, to energy sources. Careful with this one, as it is a key contributor to the greenwashing scheme. Watch out for products claiming to be “green” or that use lots of green colouring in their logos.
Organic: refers to products that are created or grown without any artificial pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides or other additives. Organic products must meet strict standards and guidelines in order for them to be labelled organic by a governing body. Look for the logos to be sure you are using true organic products.
Natural: refers to products that are free of synthetic or artificial additives.
Recyclable: refers to waste that can be converted into new materials or objects by breaking down the product into usable parts. This process is actually very complex and is dictated by market demands, price for the materials and many other factors. Check with your local waste and recycling programs to make sure you are recycling properly for your area.
Sustainable: actions or activities that meet the needs of the current generation without compromising future generations ability to meet their needs. It has much higher standards applied to it than “eco-friendly” or “green” products. Sustainability encompasses environmental, social and economic factors.
Zero waste: a lifestyle philosophy that follows sustainable cycles where discarded materials are repurposed and used for other purposes which results in very little to no trash being sent to landfills. The ultimate goal is to use the product in its entirety so no waste is generated.
While this is only a mere selection of some of the most commonly seen terms, there are many more that you may run into. Navigating a new way of life can be overwhelming not to mention, that the sustainability world is always developing and changing. Keeping the lingo straight is difficult for anyone but shouldn’t be the reason you stay from sustainable living. Hopefully this gives you some clarity on your next sustainable shopping trip, and remember to always be on the lookout for greenwashed services and products!