What does 'sustainable' mean?

Is the term ‘eco-friendly’ better than ‘sustainable’?
What is the difference between Climate Neutral Certified brands and B-Corps?
Is Ethically Made the same as Fair Trade?

Seeing these words on websites and labels can get a bit confusing. Now that people are starting to care more about whether or not the products they buy are eco-friendly, many companies are greenwashing their products to retain customers and boost sales. 

Sadly, greenwashing is deceptive and all about marketing. Companies have seen sustainability as a trend and a marketing opportunity rather than a call to action in making real changes to support a better planet. They may make claims with catchy terms, green labels, or intentionally misleading “environmentally friendly” claims with no certification or validation requirements. 

This article from EcoWatch is an in-depth resource about greenwashing, how to spot it, and how to avoid falling into the greenwashing trap. 

This post will help you make informed decisions about which companies support your goals for more sustainable purchases. 

What does ‘sustainability’ actually mean? 

Sustainability refers to the environmental impact a company makes. Sustainable companies will often take actions such as: 

  • Offsetting emissions

  • Donating to environmental non-profits

  • Utilizing solar or wind energy for production

  • Recycling, up-cycling, or reusing materials 

  • Reducing water waste or water pollution

With that said, if a company says they are “sustainable,” no certification is necessarily required to make that claim (see more about what the term means below). They should, however, be able to back-up any claims of being sustainable.

Be sure to dive further into their practices and see what other actions they take to impact the planet less. A good general rule is that if a claim includes the word “certified,” it generally requires a vetting process. 

What-do-these-sustainability-labels-mean

Sustainable labels and what they mean: 

1% for the Planet
This certification connects companies that promise to give the equivalent of 1 percent of their gross sales with environmental charities that need funding and support. It helps businesses direct their time and dollars toward sustainability goals. Certification is required in order for brands to use the 1% for the Planet logo.

Climate Neutral Certified
This certification verifies brands that commit to reducing and offsetting carbon emissions. It incentivizes companies to change their practices to be more sustainable and lower greenhouse gases. Climate Neutral Certification gives businesses the ability to move towards a net-zero future. Brands may use the “Climate Neutral” logo when they are in the process of becoming certified along with specific language that explains their commitment. However, the “Climate Neutral Certified” logo (featured at the bottom of this page) can only be used once emission offsets have begun and brands are fully certified. 

Cradle-to-Cradle Certified
Cradle-to-Cradle Certification ensures a positive impact on people and the planet, helping companies innovate materials in safety and sustainability performance. This label requires paid and reviewed practices for certification. It ensures that the company uses safe materials for humans and the environment, enables a circular economy through regenerative products, and protects clean air, water, and soil.

GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard)
This standard defines requirements to ensure textiles' organic status, from harvesting raw materials through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing and labeling to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer. Companies must be fully vetted to receive this official certification. 

Green 
Now a common term in describing any effort related to sustainability, “green” is a term that encompasses all actions that can benefit the environment. It is a broad descriptor that can be used for anything, such as architecture, fashion, beauty products, construction, and textiles. No certification is required to label a product ‘green.’ Read more about greenwashing and green-labeling specifications.

Eco-Friendly or Eco-Conscious
These terms are interchangeable in describing products, procedures, or companies that make decisions that lower their negative impact on the planet. The FTC Green Guides say that for a product to be properly labeled as "eco-friendly," the packaging must explain why it is environmentally responsible. Therefore, this may be a better choice than going with a company claiming to be “green.” 

Sustainable
This term is a bit broader than “eco-friendly” and represents a wider scope of initiatives from environmental impact to social and economic benefits worldwide. Some companies that claim they are sustainable are more “sustainable” than others that identify with the same term. Although there is no precise measurement for a company’s level of sustainability (unless they are in some way certified sustainable), people can use this as a starting point for a deeper dive into their business practices to learn more. 

what-does-sustainable-mean

An important thing to remember: sustainable doesn’t necessarily mean ethical. 

Social responsibility is an additional component of a company's values and is not necessarily synonymous with sustainability. Other aspects to consider of reputable brands you work with or buy products from: 

  • Do they provide fair wages and safe working conditions throughout their sourcing and manufacturing? 

  • Do they partner with companies that treat their workers fairly? 

Labels that promote social responsibility (and also may promote sustainability): 

Certified B Corporation
B Corp businesses meet the highest standards of performance, accountability, and transparency in social and environmental responsibility. Companies must pass a rigorous assessment of governance, workers, community, environment, and customers and focus on continuous improvement and long-term resiliency. 

Fair Trade Certified
Fair Trade Certification requires all businesses to hold standards that support community and individual well-being, empowerment, and environmental stewardship. It includes requirements that protect workers' rights, fair labor, and sustainable land management. 

Ethically Made or Ethically Sourced
Ethical practices can cover anything from using a certain percentage of recycled materials in products to not working with facilities that use child labor. Ethical practices are important, but be sure to understand the foundational values of the companies making these claims. Since the terms lack specific certification processes, the terms are often used for marketing purposes. 

Artisan 
The term “artisan” refers to items created outside industrial production facilities. Often these products are handmade or with only a small amount of automation by skilled workers who can be paid more for their craftsmanship (although that is not guaranteed). This claim alone does not require certification to be used on a label, unless it is specifically connected to an artisan-based certification process.

one-percent-for-the-planet-hat

When it comes to product production, almost everything created makes some negative impact on our environment. Whether through using energy or water to develop and ship products or creating waste byproducts, all business processes impact the planet in one way or another. 

This is why it is so important to vote with your dollars. Choose to work with and buy from businesses working to lower their impact on our planet’s finite resources. In the corporate world, we hope that our efforts inspire others to take action to reduce and offset any negative environmental impact. 

Learn more about our commitment to sustainability and how we are making important decisions now for a better future. 

Credit: Simons, Nina. “What’s the Difference Between Green, Sustainable, Eco-Friendly, Ethical, Fair Trade, Clean, Organic, Non-Toxic, and Conscious?” May 8, 2018. EcoCult.
Additional Resource: Noyes, Lydia. "A Guide to Greenwashing and How to Spot It" Nov, 26, 2022. EcoWatch,
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