‘Eco-friendly’ & ‘Sustainable’

by Peter Malaise

Both terms have become common language with consumers of so-called ‘green’ products, predomin­antly non-food products, and in the production and trade of such products altogether.

For both we have to take in account different inter­pretations, depending on who is looking:

  • there is the perception of the customer/con­sumer, which may be tainted, superficial and rather an opinion than a fact;
  • there is the technical and/or legal under­standing which may be reduced to limited physical and proven facts;
  • and there is the definition we would like to get through and which takes in account the former two, but also tries to ‘educate’.

The public opinion may be distorted, not to say out­right wrong on certain issues, and this is certainly the case with the terms in the title.

‘Eco-friendly’ (also ‘ecofriendly’)

The term first appeared in 19891:

  • the year that carbon dioxide in the atmo­sphere reached 350 ppm for the first time,
  • that the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska oc­curred and
  • that the Montreal protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer came into force.

Several English language dictionaries give diverging meanings for the term:

  • Merriam-Webster: “Not environmentally harmful, not having a bad effect on the nat­ural world.”
  • Cambridge dictionary: “Eco-friendly products have been designed to do the least possible damage to the environment.”
  • Collins Dictionary: “Eco-friendly products or services are less harmful to the environment than other similar products or services.”
  • Dictionary.com: “Having a beneficial effect on the environment or at least not causing environmental damage.”

Which makes the meaning of the term being from “having a beneficial effect” to “not environmentally harmful” and about everything in between. ‘Eco-friendly’ appears to be a very precarious term to define ‘green’ products; neither is there a legal cov­erage for it. It is a colloquial and lazy way of defining products and services that are supposed to respect the natural environment, just as the term ‘green’ is, but mostly people will tend to take the latter less serious.

Why is ‘eco-friendly’ questionable as a term?

The term suggests that the product or service under that wording, and the people using such a product, add something positive to the natural environment. That is hardly ever the case: non-food products are predominantly man-made, they do not exist as such in nature. There is nothing wrong with that, but man-made products inevitably have been lifted out of their natural context to serve one or other pur­pose of Man.

  • An animal hide that has bin tanned and turned into leather needs a very long time to rot away, many times that of the untreated hide. It might also release chrome (a heavy metal) from the actual tanning process, and other contaminants.
  • A detergent derived from plant sourced oils has been chemically transformed, may have a marked aquatic toxicity and will resist bio­degradation to a much larger extent than the vegetable oils from which it is derived.

The suggestive communication on a given product as being beneficial to the environment is systemat­ically used in the marketing of non-food ‘green’ products. It is hardly the case with foodstuff, be­cause food is about single materials (e.g. tomatoes, olive oil, wheat flour, olives for a pizza) that are very well traceable up to a certified, beneficial agricul­tural source indeed. But the latter don’t need to ex­ert a physico-chemical effect in the outer world. Even from a pizza you can not state that it is eco-friendly; it’s plain pizza, tasty or not, at best it will be eco-neutral. A clumsy pizza baker may produce a miserable pizza with the best of organic ingredients. It won’t do no harm to the ecological systems, but it will not be beneficial to them either.

The ingredients of eco-friendly’ detergents don’t have to come from a certified source, they are evalu­ated according to a database, the Detergent In­gredient Database (DID), set up and monitored by the EU. In this publicly accessible database the most common detergent ingredients are listed and only the listed ones may be used for products that want to obtain the EU Ecolabel for detergents. Next to that, submitted product formulas have to pass a performance test which is tailored on the often ex­cessive performance of conventional detergents. Not very ‘eco-friendly’, all that.

Many NGOs and similar organisations, but also pro­ducers of ‘green’ detergents, put question marks next to the quite permissive criteria used for these ingredients, and to the lacking of detergent testing formulas which are themselves ‘green’. As my friend Michael Braungart2 formulates it: less bad is not good enough.

There are no ‘eco-friendly’ detergents, just as there are no ‘finger-friendly’ knives; the former don’t clean, the latter don’t cut. Even with the best of ingredients, detergents can only be eco-neutral. All in all, the term ‘eco-friendly’ – which can easily be used without getting in legal trouble – puts up a smoke screen and generates benevolence for something possibly fake.

Is there an alternative for ‘eco-friendly’?

I would dare to suggest the less informal “environ­mentally sound”.

  • The OECD1 writes: “Environmentally sound techno­logies are techniques and technologies cap­able of reducing environmental damage through processes and materials that gen­erate fewer potentially damaging sub­stances, recover such substances from emis­sions prior to discharge, or utilize and re­cycle production residues.
    The assessment of these technologies should account for their interaction with the socioeconomic and cultural conditions under which they are implemented.”

Merriam-Webster and Collins don’t mention the term.

Cambridge Dictionary: “Good because based on good judgment or correct methods”.

Dictionary.com: “You’re so sound is a phrase that hinges on the word sound as an adject­ive, not the “noisy” noun. Sound, meaning “free from special defect or injury,” has been recorded as far back as the 1200s. Many ad­ditional meanings were born over the next few centuries. In the 1500s, sound referred to someone “healthy,” especially with re­spect to venereal diseases. In the 1600s, sound became something “financially safe” as well as “excellent,” “admirable,” or “de­pendable.” By the mid-1800s, sound was further attributed to people considered “trustworthy” or “of sober judgment.” In the 20th century in the United Kingdom and Ire­land, sound spread as a slang term for someone you like or something that you en­joy, similar to “cool” or “awesome,” hence an expression like you’re so sound.”

Environmentally sound” are those products and processes which, while fulfilling the expectations as to their performance, are reliable and safe for the actual and future environment and human health.

This definition does neither suggest that the products are soft, nor that they have a beneficial ef­fect on health and/or environment. It’s inherently close to eco-neutral, which is quite a technical sounding term. At the same time it is not an abso­lute statement (good/bad), an environmentally sound product will keep an eye on, and adapt to the forever changing circumstances of that environment and to the technical, socio-ecological and cultural context of society. The term has the advantage of having a long history, being in use since the 1200s, far longer than any other related term.

There is nothing against using the term ‘green products’ as a colloquial term in spoken language, but I would avoid it in writing (rule which I broke in this text for the sake of clarity).


The historical, primary meaning of this term is “able to be maintained or continued”. An equivalent term would be ‘future proof’. Several European languages (a.o. Dutch/Flemish, French) use another, seemingly related term for it: in English that would translate as “durable”. The term ‘sustainable’ got it’s actual, ex­tended meaning after the publication of the so-called Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987. The shortest form of the conclusions of this 200+ page report was:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without comprom­ising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

That means that, whatever we do in the actual soci­etal and economical situation, should be done in such a way that:

  • We don’t deplete sources of raw materials, water and energy,
  • We don’t cause persistent pollution in any form, or endanger biodiversity,
  • We don’t cause social, societal and/or cul­tural disruptions.

“Sustainability” is the term for a situation where sustainable development is supposed to have taken place; however, the Brundtland report states clearly that sustainable development is a never ending story, it is not a status, but an ongoing aim. There will always be a lot to do and to develop. Companies or organisations declaring they are sustainable have clearly not understood the issue. A product, a pro­cess, an action, a development might be sustainable in the actual context, but organisations or compan­ies can’t be, nor become one day.

Processing of raw materials along the principles of Green Chemistry, for instance, can be seen as sus­tainable processing.

In this sense, environmentally sound products are products which fit in a sustainability perspective, just as organic agriculture does. There are sustainable construction, medicine, cosmetics, clothing, paint, furniture and so on, which all work in the same dir­ection, albeit with divergent criteria, depending on the type of sources, materials, processes and trade. What they will have in common though is that the life cycle of the products will be very similar in its ba­sic principles:

  • from renewable sources, no fossil sources when feasible, completed with abundantly available minerals,
  • transformed with sustainable processing,
  • reliable and safe at use,
  • featuring an excellent profile as to reuse, recycling or even upcycling,
  • and an end of life profile with low aquatic toxicity and readily degradation, without stable leftovers.

Peter Malaise

Those who want more details about the raw materials for detergents, cleaning products and cosmetics can consult the website
[https://www.ecobiocontrol.bio/] (French, English, Italian) for free and without identification.

This article is the personal opinion of the author and is not sponsored by anyone. References to manufacturers or brands do not confer any financial or other benefit on the author or Meta.Consort. Meta.Consort is a consulting company and neither manufactures, nor sells products of any kind.

Peter Malaise

1 Merriam-Webster

2 Braungart & McDonough, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability, North Point Press, 2013

3 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development