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What Is the Difference Between Eco Friendly and Sustainable?

It’s not unusual for people to interchange the words eco-friendly and sustainable. In most cases, you wouldn’t even be making a mistake because both these terms focus on social responsibility and environmental awareness. If we were to get into the nitty-gritty of each subject, you would realize that they do, in fact, have significant dissimilarities that are important to put out there.

Let’s steer you away from muddled territory by offering some guidelines on how to differentiate these two closely-related green terms. While we’re at it, we’ll also cover the relationship between the words clean and non-toxic, conscious and thoughtful, and ethical and fair trade to help you make wiser product purchases in the future.

Green vs. Eco-Friendly

Unlike the definition of the term green, which is used to describe almost anything that pertains to an environmental benefit, the meaning of eco-friendly is not as broad. It simply means something that isn’t harmful to the planet.

Sustainable, on the other hand, is more precisely defined and refers to the entire spectrum of activities and issues that do not negatively impact future generations’ ability to meet their needs.

With sustainability, the focus is set on the future. It concerns issues and actions that deal with environmental, social, and economic benefits, but don’t use up resources at a rapid rate. Yes, this is the true scope of sustainability’s meaning.

Sustainability is also held by experts at a much higher standard compared to eco-friendly. This is because sustainability covers activities that fall under eco-friendly, but eco-friendly doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable. For example, a product manufactured from renewable resources is considered eco-friendly but is not sustainable if it takes up a lot of energy to produce and cannot be disposed of correctly.

According to, there isn’t much in terms of consumer products that can really be considered sustainable. The reality is some products are just more sustainable than their counterparts.

Clean vs. Non-Toxic

In their efforts to provide safe products, the beauty and wellness industries coined the terms non-toxic and clean. The latter implies that either the synthetic or natural ingredients used in the product do not harm the user’s health. The former, on the other hand, doesn’t just cover safety for humans but also protection for the environment.

That said, to address health needs holistically, you’ll want to focus more on purchasing non-toxic products instead of just clean products.

Ethical vs. Fair Trade

Global trade has never been better than in the last few decades. This is all thanks to fair trade, a movement that started back in the 1980s to safeguard tea, coffee, and cocoa producers from too-low international prices.

Fair trade is a term that’s defined so precisely that it can only be used on a product upon its certification by either the Fair Trade Federation, Equal Exchange, World Fair Trade Organization, and Fair Trade Certified. A product that has been certified as fair trade will usually have a logo denoting such certification.

As for the ethical trade movement, it refers to the conditions workers producing toys, food, clothing, and other products from megacorporations are subjected to. It also deals with the fairness in which they are compensated for their work. While not as broad as it ought to be, ethical trade is still useful when referring to the kinds of products you want to purchase, in general.

Thoughtful vs. Conscious

The trend dictates that you purchase products consciously. That means you’re aware and have high standards when it comes to how safe and healthy the product is for you and the environment.

As a conscious consumer, you won’t think twice about spending extra on products that are sustainably sourced. You’ll also likely be someone who religiously swears by a holistic fitness routine. So, yes, conscious is a lifestyle term, and it describes how a person goes about accomplishing things and not necessarily how a specific product is viewed.

Being thoughtful, on the other hand, is a little bit different because it focuses on how considerate you are of another individual’s needs. It also means you do your best to become well-informed on a particular subject before you form an opinion or make a decision that concerns it. With that said, it follows that thoughtfulness covers the definition of being a conscious buyer and, therefore, can stand as the all-embracing goal of an individual.

Why Aim for Sustainability?

The small differences between the terms sustainable and eco-friendly will make a giant difference when you consider the many years you engage in both practices. While you can work your way towards the more preferred sustainable way of living from an eco-friendly lifestyle, your awareness of these terms’ differences could influence how soon you make the shift. This, in turn, could affect the level of impact you have on the environment entirely.

Still, this shouldn’t discourage you from shifting to an eco-friendly lifestyle. At the state our world is in today, the little steps we take towards improving our lives and being more conscious will hold results significant enough to be felt by the next generations.


Nikki is an author and writer specializing in green living ideas and tips, adventure travel, upcycling, and all things eco-friendly. She's traveled the globe, swum with sharks and been bitten by a lion (fact). She lives in a tiny town with a fat cat and a very bad dog.

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