Sustainable Phrases: Unveiling the True Meanings Behind Common Terms
Updated: Nov 2
It’s all too common for sustainable buzzwords and phrases to be thrown around, often blurring the line between genuine efforts to improve and mere marketing tactics.
By delving into the real meanings behind these words, we aim to empower you with the knowledge to see through greenwashing tactics and make informed decisions when it comes to sustainable products, helping you navigate the eco-conscious landscape with confidence and clarity.
Short for ecological but often abbreviated as 'eco,' is frequently interpreted as indicating eco-friendliness. However there are no mandates dictating that companies must demonstrate their environmental benefits to employ this term.
Certain businesses purchase plastic waste collected from the ocean and incorporate it into their products. Nevertheless, the label 'ocean plastic' doesn't guarantee it has directly come from the ocean! Some companies opt for 'ocean-bound' plastic, which is waste plastic presumed to be on its way to the ocean. Products are rarely 100% ocean plastic and are often mixed with virgin materials to ensure performance is upheld.
Biodegradable means a material will break down in the natural environment aided by bacteria and microbes. While technically all materials are biodegradable, most synthetic materials will take decades, centuries, or even millennia to break down. From a consumer perspective, materials that are considered biodegradable will be consumed by microbes in a matter of months or years though the definition of this varies from country to country, or in the case of the US, state to state.
Biodegradability rates will vary in different environments so testing is often focussed on either soil, marine water, or landfill. For a company to claim biodegradability they must have had the product independently tested so keep an eye out for their testing accolades and time frames.
One of the most commonly misinterpreted statements revolves around compostability, which is categorised into two types:
Industrial Compostable: This term signifies that an item can be decomposed through 'industrial composting,' a process that utilises large machines, abundant organic material, consistently high temperatures, and airflow which requires a lot of energy to move the material through. Importantly, the item is not suitable for your backyard compost pile or household food waste bin.
Home Compostable: Keep an eye out for the 'home compostable' certification logo. Products bearing this label can be added to your personal compost heap at home and potentially included in your food waste bin.
Plant or bio-based describe materials that are derived either entirely or partially from natural resources rather than fossil fuels. Whilst on the surface this can be seen as a positive step in sustainability, sceptics argue that the production of these plastics still involves significant energy consumption and resources, often leading to deforestation and monoculture farming practices. In some cases, bio-based plastics can contaminate the recycling stream and therefore are not accepted in all recycling processes.
Despite their renewable origins, these materials are not without environmental concerns, raising questions about their true impact and effectiveness in addressing the pollution problem.
This does not mean that the product or business is entirely emission-free. Rather, it indicates that the company has 'offset' its emissions by supporting projects that purportedly absorb an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Of the four ways of reducing your carbon emissions, offsetting should only be a last resort after avoiding, reducing or substituting.
A popular term implying eco-friendly and beneficial for the environment, yet often lacking specificity and substance. A subtle example of this is where companies use the colour green within their branding to subconsciously convince consumers that the product is sustainable.
It's advisable to disregard the term unless supported by concrete evidence. Always seek proof to substantiate 'green' assertions.