What's the difference between sustainable, fairtrade and eco-friendly?

Did you know that eco-friendly products are not necessarily sustainable? Navigating the sea of "green" labels can be confusing, and many companies are guilty of muddying the waters with unfounded claims and marketing campaigns.

What's the difference between green, fairtrade and eco-friendly? 

Terms like eco-friendly, organic, sustainable, zero waste, fairtrade and green are often used interchangeably, but while some are legally protected terms, others are not and can be used for "greenwashing".

This simple guide will teach you what to look out for and how to find out if a product is genuinely sustainable.

What does "green" mean?

"Green" is a broad everyday term that generally implies better practices for both the environment and the people involved. It is not a legally protected term.

Green products are 

  • Generally energy efficient and durable
  • Often made with recycled materials or from renewable / sustainable sources
  • Often made locally/with local resources
  • Biodegradable or easily reused
  • Not necessarily sustainable

What does "eco-friendly" mean?

Eco-friendly (or environmentally friendly) is a narrower term than green. It means something that is not harmful to the planet, from manufacturing to use to the end of the product's life cycle. It is not a legally protected term.

Eco-friendly products are 

  • Designed to do little or no harm to the environment
  • Generally energy efficient and durable
  • Often made with recycled materials or from renewable / sustainable sources
  • Often made locally/with local resources
  • Biodegradable or easily reused
  • Not necessarily sustainable

What does "Fairtrade" mean?

Fairtrade (one word) is a legally regulated term and mark issued by an independent organisation. The products must meet certain social, environmental and economic standards.

Fair trade (two words) is not a protected term, and companies can claim that their products are fairly traded even when they are not.

Certified Fairtrade products

  • Requires fair wages & working conditions for workers in developing countries
  • Requires responsible land management
  • Requires a transparent supply chain
  • Do not contain GMOs
  • Offers consumers a way to reduce inequality through everyday shopping

Certification is a laborious process and not all companies who trade ethically have the Fairtrade mark. However, the mark shows that the brand takes their commitment to fair trade seriously and have passed the rigid process required.

What does "sustainable" mean?

When we talk about sustainability, it usually related to environmental (minimal impact on the planet), economic(fair wages) or social (related to community, working conditions and employee rights), or a combination of all three.  It is not a legally protected term.

Sustainable products are 

  • Green, eco-friendly and fair trade
  • Made of recycled materials or from renewable / sustainable sources
  • Made in an ethical way that is not harmful to humans or the environment
  • Has an efficient life cycle (can be recycled, upcycled, composted)
  • Can be disposed of with minimal impact

What is "greenwashing"?

Greenwashing occurs when a company tries to make a product or brand appear more sustainable than it is to capitalise on consumer demand. An example is the case of  Starbucks’ straw free lids, which were made of more plastic than the previous straws and lids combined.

Greenwashing is

  • Vague, irrelevant, or untruthful claims about how eco-friendly a product is
  • Using "false" labels instead of certifications from real organisations
  • Touting one sustainable benefit while ignoring other harmful aspects

How to check if a product is sustainable / eco-friendly

A product that appears eco-friendly at first glance might not be as sustainable as you think. Satin ribbons made of 100% recycled bottles sound good, but it might be manufactured in China and have a larger carbon footprint than products sourced closer to home.

At Literary Lip Balms, our policy is to source materials and supplies from local vendors as much as possible. This makes more sense to us than to go for 100% organic or 100% post consumer waste, if those things have to be shipped from abroad.

As a consumer, you have the power to educate yourself and make a conscious choice about the things you buy. A few questions that we find helpful are:

  • Where is the product made? Some products say "Designed in UK / Ireland", but are manufactured abroad.
  • Are all of the company's products sustainable? It is common for larger companies to launch a "green" product line or brand, without changing the policy on their core products. Think of all the fast fashion brands that tout about their organic cotton, but still use cheap labour to produce their clothes.
  • What are the actual ingredients / materials? If the packaging looks eco-friendly, but it contains ingredients you know are harmful - stay away. 
  • Is it really sustainable? "Sustainable" is not a legal term and many companies can make this claim without doing further research. As an example, sustainable palm oil is something that is used by many soap makers but the organisation that certifies this is set up by the palm oil industry. Because we feel this is a questionable ingredient, our artisan soap bars do not contain palm oil.
  • If an organisation displays an eco-certification, who is it from and what does it mean? Many coffee and chocolate brands are a Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance member. The former focuses on how plantations and farms are managed while the latter are designed to empower small producers and tackle poverty. Fairtrade guarantees a minimum price, Rainforest Alliance does not.

Asking these questions, and knowing where to look for answers, will make it easier to adapt a truly sustainable lifestyle.

Maya Angelou quote below an illustration of Earth: Do your best until you know better. Then do better. 


What does eco-friendly really mean? https://www.ovoenergy.com/guides/energy-guides/what-does-eco-friendly-really-mean.html

5 problems with sustainable palm oil https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/5-problems-with-sustainable-palm-oil/

EU eco labels. https://ec.europa.eu/environment/gpp/pdf/ecolabels.pdf

What eco-friendly means. https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/home/a29830418/what-eco-friendly-means/

What makes products sustainable? https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-makes-product-sustainable-joana-vieira/

Investopedia - Definition of greenwashing. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/greenwashing.asp

Fairtrade vs The Rainforest Alliance. https://fairtradewales.com/fairtrade-vs-the-rainforest-alliance

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