On Terminology, in a Sustainable Development Context

by Peter Malaise

Chapter 1 Terminology

  1. The terminology used to communicate on and about criteria has to be carefully discussed and selected. Terms such as ’natural’, ’ecological’, ’sustainable’ and many more have to be clearly defined on forehand and their use monitored.
  2. For this purpose the following Terminology Compilation has been edited, in English. This Compilation lists the most commonly used terms with regards to their ethical, technical and semantical backgrounds. It was originally conceived for washing and cleaning products but can easily be adapted to be used for other categories of sustainable commodities.
  3. The purpose of the Compilation is to inspire and guide marketing and sales departments when they edit labels, flyers, websites or other means of communication. In the other case, they may be held accountable – by the authorities or by1 a third party such as a consumer organisation – for an arbitrary or fraudulent use of such terms.
  4. The English version should be translated with the help of native speakers into the respective languages it will be used for.

1.1 Terminology preamble

I have been observing the word of communication, the small, everyday, mobile word, which functions or seems to function in life and therefore either hinders or benefits the development of events on the stage, too. It is this kind of word I’m thinking of when I maintain that in it there is no place for the soul”.
Rainer Maria Rilke, German writer and poet, 1898

« Pigs Can Fly, the Earth is Square, Nuclear Energy is Safe »
Slogan used by the anti-nuclear movement in the 1970’s.

Criteria for sustainable commodities), for household as well as for professional use, should respond to Cradle-to-Grave1 (C2G) principles, possibly even to Cradle-to-Cradle2 (C2C) principles, both of which are embedded in the principles of Sustainable Development, as put forward in 1987 in the Brundtland Report3.

The international circle of companies which have dedicated themselves to the development, production and commercialisation of sustainable commodities should take this up as their main mission.

The daily practice of promoting sustainable commodities illustrates that it is a complex and sensitive task. Many of the terms one might use for marketing and communication purposes have been perverted in the course of the last decades by marketing actions of conventional companies, who wanted to profile themselves as ’green’ without really being it.

The definitions in this paper are meant for use within a non-food product context. In the past most of these terms were also used in other realms such as organic agriculture and its produce, food, herbal medicine or cosmetics. That use is still ongoing, parallel to new interpretations. In the wake of their development at different speeds, for different purposes and in different places, the same terms used in one realm might have developed quite different meanings in another. Furthermore are these terms involved in a continuous development. That can lead to serious (inducted or involuntary) misinterpretations and in any case, it turns communication that uses them into a risk factor, even when it comes from a credible source.

One could argue that this is just semantics4 and that it has little to do with business or with the environment. Consider that conventional producers engaging in the sustainable market segment more often than not start using seemingly ’green’ messages without there being much ’green’ in or around the product ; that’s what is called greenwashing. After a while and after some malpractices, possibly even court cases, the legislator tends to interfere by almost prohibiting the use of one or more terms. As a consequence, sustainable producers see their possibilities to communicate shrink and become limited. They are not able anymore to speak about the difference their products make. Which is exactly what conventional producers want.

1In these principles, a given product is considered in its whole Life Cycle, starting with the extraction of raw materials, over transformation processes, use and reassimilation in the cycle of nature.

2In these principles, a given product is considered in its whole Life Cycle, starting with the extraction of raw materials, over transformation processes, use and reassimilation in the cycle of nature, but continuing the considerations into a second or further use, or as a raw material base for a next production cycle.

3Our Common Future, a report ordered in 1983 by the UN with the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), commission of which Gro Harlem Brundtland, medical doctor and former prime minister of Norway, was the chairwoman.

4’Semantics’ is often used as a negative earmark, but it is essentially the study of the meaning of signifiers (words, signs, symbols) and the connotations they stand for.

There are three further complications :

  • Different languages are dissimilar in the use of terms and words, making that this Compilation will have to be rediscussed for each language separately, necessarily under the cooperation of native speakers;
  • The national legislator in different countries (even amongst the EU members) might have a different interpretation of such terms;
  • The legislator might transplant the meaning of a term in one context, i.e. food, to a non-food context, without too much investigation or afterthought.

There will be some examples linked to each term further down in the text, to illustrate the risks any organisation or company is running when the use of these terms by its collaborators is not rigorously monitored. One could have the opinion that this has little value for day-to-day or business life. In that case, please read once again the quote from Rainer Maria Rilke in the header of this document.

We are convinced that this carefulness has to do with ethics; we know that they hardly play a role anymore in actual business life and we feel that we have to do something about it. Furthermore, we are convinced that it is one of our tasks to spread the idea and campaign for well-thought terminology together with the consumers and their organisations, and to be active in advising the authorities on a correct implementation. In the other case, conventional industry will continue to take commercial advantage of the actual confusion, vagueness and uncertainty.

Chapter 2 Terms

In dealing with these terms the choice was made to work from the general to the specific, to start with the most general terms (such as the all-encompassing ’nature’) and working towards the more specific ones (such as ’organic’ or ’synthetic’).

It will be obvious that this paper is not wanting to nail down each and every definition or connotation for the coming decades. Meanings and terms will develop in society and Meta.Consort and AsSust will be part of that process. However, we can help to clean up the language pollution which has proliferated, stand for and promote a meaningful, ethical way of communication and thus help realise one of the basic aims:

Do what you say and say what you do’: Walk the Talk

2.1 ’Nature’

The term ’nature’ is in the first place pointing at the global set of different reigns and spheres which can be distinguished in, on and around our planet:

Mineral, fossil, plant, animal, human; geosphere, biosphere, noosphere, atmosphere, stratosphere etc.

’Nature’ is the global, unspecified environment we humans have around us and which makes life possible on our planet. This is the oldest meaning linked to that term : it has been used in this abstract sense for more than 2000 years. In the cultures before that time nature was not abstract, but personified: Isis, Mother Earth, Gaia and many others. As a matter of fact there is nothing against continuing to use the term ’nature’ in this global sense.

It is not correct however to state that when something comes from this global nature, it is automatically better, more beneficial and safer than something man-made. Altogether ’nature’ is a non-specific term, a container term. Some people started to turn that around : mineral oil is found in the mineral world, thus it is part of nature, thus it is OK – and the same goes for mineral oil derivatives such as Vaseline and paraffin oil. But uranium, mercury or asbestos are also found in the mineral world, should they also be considered ’part of nature’ ? Technically, scientifically, perhaps, but most people will have the feeling that this connotation is ethically not correct for a day-to-day use.

2.2 Living Nature

An image that might help to develop a meaningful overview is the following. Planet earth – global nature – is a living organism, albeit it in decline. The life processes, with photosynthesis and cell division as their main ones, make up the biosphere (micro-organisms, plants, animals, humans) on this planet and are the central and the most important ones. Living nature appears and disappears.

The geosphere (minerals including water) give a solid base and deliver a necessary amount of nutrients. Mineral substances belong to the chemical elements which can be transported and transformed, but not destroyed.

Fossil substances are the fallout, the leftovers of former life processes from the living beings in the biosphere. They may be partially mineralised and they are found within the mineral reign, but they are organic matter1 after all, and not of mineral nature. Fossil substances can also be destroyed.

Since the dawn of time all of these spheres coexist in a sensitive balance, while the biosphere was the main source for almost everything in the cultures before the first industrialisation wave, in the early 19th century.

With the coming of this first industrial revolution, mankind turned increasingly to the geosphere and to fossils, abandoning the biosphere which was kept for food purposes mainly. In the course of the 20th century, society has become nearly fully dependent on fossil and mineral raw materials, and was slowly but steadily eradicating what was left of the biosphere, which only importance was as a source for food.

Ideally, when not referring to the global nature in which we live, the term ’nature’ should be reserved for living nature, the biosphere, that means:

  • micro-organisms
  • plants
  • animals
  • human beings (they are to be considered a special case, as they stand above and have become responsible for the other reigns)

Life forms which are in-betweens, such as coral, sponges, mussels or jellyfish to name just a few, as well as naturally occurring hybrid organisms, are of course also part of living nature.

1’organic’ as in ’organic chemistry’

2.3 Living Nature is ’renewable’

This living nature has as a global characteristic, that it is renewable : what we are harvesting from it can grow again and can be harvested again, as far as we take care of some basic imperatives:

  • have sufficient arable land or unspoiled sea and ocean areas at our disposal for the plant and animal based materials
  • have effective, low energy, low waste technologies to produce materials with the help of micro-organisms

We will see later under the term ’renewable’ that there are also several limiting factors to the choice of renewable substances, such as to cause no lasting damage to living nature.

In the chemical nomenclature one speaks of ’organic’ matter, as opposed to ’inorganic’ matter (see below), but that is a very confusing terminology as we have organic agriculture and organic produce using the same term. It is wiser to use the term bio-based when one speaks about renewable ingredients. ’Bio’ refers here to the biological or life processes, not to organic agriculture.

When we speak about animal raw materials, we don’t refer to materials which need slaughtering, but at matter that animals secrete: milk, whey, wool fat, beeswax, honey, cheese and many more. Sustainable criteria are not necessarily based on vegetarian or on vegan principles. However, it would be relatively simple to include these approaches in such criteria. Unwanted ingredients have to be earmarked and when the request for the labelling of a vegetarian or vegan product is made, they should be taken as exclusion factors. To make such a decision credible there must be a cooperation between the organisation and representative vegetarian and vegan associations. Especially the vegan version can be tricky: as an example, many vegan associations do not allow animal testing, and using Daphnia magna (minuscule, non-sentient water fleas) in aquatic toxicity tests is not acceptable to them.

2.4 Unliving Nature

Next to living nature we know the mineral world, the geosphere or unliving nature, that part of nature which knows no life processes, from which we can extract minerals and metals and in which we can find fossil matter. Mineral and fossil matter are finite, not renewable, there is a limited stock of them present on this planet. Some of the mineral substances are so abundantly present – i.e. silicates make some 75% of the earth’s outer crust – that a depletion is hardly thinkable; others are less abundant.

We should not forget in our considerations that water is a mineral element. Water can therefore never be ’organic’ (derived from organic agriculture) and a watery extract of a plant – which contains only a few milligrams of active matter – can never be or become organic. This not only important for calculations, but also for claims and other marketing purposes.

However, fossil matter such as coal, crude oil and ’natural’ gas are close to depletion ; some other such as peat are almost depleted. Fossil matter is occurring in and taken from the mineral world, but is not a mineral itself , contrarily to what terms such as ’mineral oil’ wrongfully suggest. Fossil matter is what is left as fossilised rests, mummies, from former life forms, plants or animals. In a sustainable economy, for sustainable products and services, we should try to limit our use of fossil raw materials to the strict minimum and use them only then, when there is no functional solution from renewable sources.

With the above in mind, wordings such as ’Ingredients from Nature’ or ’Natural Ingredients’ don’t make any sense, on the contrary, they cause confusion and raise suspicion:

  • Either this suggests that the ingredients are coming from all reigns of global nature, including renewable ones, mineral ones and fossil ones, and/or their derivatives. Which is more or less obvious: as there is no matter from outer space available, whatever ingredient that we use must be derived from one of the former.
  • Or the ingredients are partially or totally fossil derived, but the communication wants to hide that fact by using a half-truth in the wording.

Remark: When speaking about global nature – Mother Earth – the term ’nature’ can be used without restrictions. However, it would be a good practice to make that clear to the audience or to the reader. In other cases, the term ’nature’ should be reserved to indicate living nature, which encompasses micro-organisms, plants, animals and humans. When speaking about the unliving nature – which term is a bit weird to use, especially in spoken language – one should prefer the use of the terms mineral [nature] and fossil [nature] to point at those reigns. In the view of the comments above, wordings such as ’Ingredients from Nature’ or ’Natural Ingredients’ do not make any sense, they generate confusion and raise suspicion.

2.5 ‘Natural’

In the wake of the term ’nature’ comes ’natural’. We should prefer to use the adjective ’natural’ to identify substances:

  • which are taken (harvested) from living nature: micro-organisms, plants or animals, and
  • which are used ’in statu nascendi’, as such, without further modification. In the case a processing is necessary, only physical (non-chemical) processes are allowed, such as :

Soaking, pressing, filtration, distillation, desiccation, freezing, …

All of these are processes through which the original substances are left unchanged in their chemical structure, which would not be the case with chemical processing. Fruit, vegetable juices, milk, but also plant oils, cocaine or snake venom are altogether ’natural’ substances. As a matter of fact, really ’natural’ substances in the full sense of the word are rather small in numbers. They are not necessarily safe or harmless either.

Unfortunately, the term ’natural’ has been prostituted by having been put in front of almost anything imaginable : natural bread, natural cheese, natural beer, natural cosmetics, natural paint, natural cleaners and so on.

It’s a clumsy and inappropriate way to stress the possibly sustainable character of the product. All of these products are man-made, none of them is natural, none of them occurs as such in nature.

2.6 Man-made produce

There is essentially nothing wrong with the fact that a substance is man-made, but some sixty years ago it was a plus when something was wild, in a raw state, untreated. That was even the case in the early days of organic produce: vegetables from organic agriculture were often offered as untreated vegetables. When organic farmers would not treat their crops indeed (they treat them with sustainable methods and products, of course) it would be a disaster. ’Natural’ in the sense of ’in its original, unspoiled state’, ’virgin’, ’intact’ and immediately linked to it: ’healthy’, ’beneficial’, is a typically romantic projection.

There has been such a period in the 19th century as well, when ’savages’ or ’savage’ setups were touring the world like circuses (Buffalo Bill with Sitting Bull, or Pygmies, e.g.). It seems to be a deep longing of man that he once lived in the wild and that such is the original, unspoiled, ’natural’ state he is still yearning for. As a rule, man-made products will be more functional, more appropriate and more sophisticated than objects taken from nature and used as such.

Recommendation: The use of the term ’natural’ should be limited to materials where this being in a natural state is not obvious. Some examples: ’natural essential oil’ is a wrongful qualification, as essential oils are obviously distilled from plant parts (a very few and rare ones from animal secretions). ’Natural cleaner’ is an equally wrongful qualification, as there is no tree, shrub or other plant that produces a ready-to-use cleaner. A better practice would be the use of the term ’plant based’ for the essential oils and ’plant [and mineral] based’ or ’bio-based1’ for the cleaner. The nature of the product can make a differentiation necessary. Any laundry or dishwasher detergent i.e. will contain 70-80% of minerals for 20-30% of bio-based ingredients. Only mentioning the bio-based is not quite honest; there is nothing wrong with minerals, we need them in the washing process.

1The ’bio’ in ’bio-based’ is referring to their origin from living nature, biology.

2.7 ‘Renewable’

A renewable material is a substance extracted from living nature. It can be from microbial, plant or animal sources, it can be used in statu nascendi (literally: as it is in nature) for the production of consumer goods, or after physical and/or (bio)chemical transformation. Contextual limitations are:

  • that the use of such a substance should not be conflicting with food purposes,
  • that the substance shouldn’t belong to rare species or species in danger of extinction,
  • that the substance or its harvesting should not hamper biodiversity,
  • that the substance or its harvesting should not be a burden to the global environment.

Renewable materials will definitely be the ingredients of the future, as we can regrow them as much or as little as we need. But one can easily distort this meaning for less honest purposes.

As an example: ethylene oxide is a carcinogenic, toxic, highly flammable and explosive compound, used among others to produce ethoxylated surfactants; it is made from petrochemical derivatives. Lately, there has been an offer of ethylene oxide which was entirely made from renewables. However, this ’renewable’ ethylene oxide is all the way carcinogenic, toxic, highly flammable and explosive. The source is different, but the characteristics of the molecule are identical.

The argument that some substance is made from renewable sources has to be sustained by other arguments, documenting its relative innocuity to health and environment.

2.8 ‘Ecological’

An ingredient or a product can be considered to be ecological when it is made with components derived from renewable sources (microbial, plant, animal), possibly completed with abundantly occurring minerals. Each of these components has to be generated and/or transformed in an environmentally sound and energy saving way, and feature a low toxicity for aquatic life. Generally spoken a characterisation could be:

’Ecological is that what fits in the logics of the ecosystems’.

The biodegradability of minerals is not taken in consideration, as they are intrinsically not degradable. At the utmost they can be split into more basic elements, such as i.e. sodium carbonate in sodium, carbon dioxide and water.

Organic matter (’organic’ as in ’organic chemistry’) has to be readily and completely biodegradable in aerobic as well as in anaerobic conditions, and leave no stable metabolites behind.

However, some European countries use the terms ’ecological’ and ’organic’ as synonyms to indicate produce from organic agriculture. Such is the case in Spain, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The EU legislation on food considers them to mean the same, although this is mostly not put into practice outside the aforementioned countries. That generates a very confusing situation; there is no such a rule yet for non-food applications.

As a result, the use of the term ’ecological’ is tricky and could lead to disputes with the authorities.

2.9 ‘Organic’ (as ‘from organic agriculture’)

Organic substances are derived from living nature (microbial, plant, animal sources), grown or cultivated and transformed according to the principles of one of the several organic agriculture methods approved by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Common to all of them is the care for soil fertility in time and space, the use of sustainable techniques to stimulate soil fertility and plant quality in an appropriate way, and the non-use of man-made chemicals to do so.

Inherent to the organic agriculture approach is a regular chain control of producers and transformers by an external accredited body.

It will be obvious that ’organic’ as a quality makes no sense when the product would not be ’renewable’ and ’sustainable’ first of all. The opposite is not true: a product can be ’natural’, ’sustainable’ and ’renewable’, separately or combined, without being ’organic’. That would i.e. be the case for any plant essential oil. Neither is ’organic’ able to do away with the negative characteristics of certain plant derivatives: organic wine makes you drunk and from organic tobacco you get cancer.

The organic quality of an ingredient has to be certified by an accredited organisation to be credible; that’s why ’organic’ has to be understood as ’certified organic’. The certification organisations mostly have their own rules as to how this mention can be used on labels and in other communication.

2.10 ‘Sustainable’

Quote from the 1987 Brundtland Report ’Our Common Future’:

«Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: the concept of ’needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.»

To start with, sustainable development is a lifestyle, not a target that will be reached one day. It is a state of continuous development and therefore of continuous improvement efforts. It has the three well-known pillars: economical, ecological and social requirements at the same time.

It is therefore not easy to apply this principle to substances or processes. A sustainable ingredient or process can only be like an instant picture, a situation at a certain moment in time, prone to further improvement.

A sustainable material has therefore to respond to ecological criteria first of all; it might be ’natural’ and ’renewable’, depending on its nature and possible transformation processes. When that is the case, becoming ’organic’ would be the highest quality level that can be reached. The term ’sustainable’ can be seen as a container term, encompassing several other characteristics of materials, processes and products.

A sustainable material has at the same time to respond to social criteria (human rights, gender equity, non-discrimination, labour conditions, wages policy, child labour, access to education and medical care etc.).

But it also has to respond to economical criteria, such as availability, price, source depletion, energy consumption, waste generation, transport impacts and some more.

When one studies this terminology in more detail, more improbabilities or exclusions will become obvious. Several NGOs have done very important field work on the matter.

It will be self-understood that there is no organisation that can declare a substance or process to be sustainable. There are no written rules to define exactly what a sustainable process or substance is. Often it will be own research, combined with the result of internal and external discussions that makes one come to such a conclusion.

2.11 ‘Synthetic’

Literally this term (derived from the old Greek) means something like ’put together’. As we interpret it today it is used to define substances which are the result of a man-steered process, as opposed to ’natural’. However, the good/bad devil is showing up again: at the same time, ’natural’ is ’good’ and ’synthetic’ is ’bad’. Or even worse, ’synthetic’ is synonym to ’derived from petrochemicals’.

None of these is right. It is perfectly possible to make synthetic substances such as polyethylene, polyester or acryl from renewable sources. With a forever growing world population we will simply need sustainable synthetic substances to spare enough arable land for food purposes.

Chapter 3 Absolute claims

In the commodity business as a whole, but also in sustainable commodities, there’s a whole population of claims hanging around which have their absoluteness as main characteristic. It must be stressed that the real sustainable producers – the SMEs which are the pioneers in the business – are as an average very careful in their wording, claims and arguments.

Ecology is a science of the living; it is extremely complex and highly unpredictable. The very diversified opinions and discussions on climate change the last years are a good example of this fact. That should urge us to be meticulous when making statements about the products we develop and market. In the realm of living nature nothing is really set or fixed: a biodegradation value of a given molecule is an approximation and only valid under certain conditions. Therefore, a biodegradation value declared to be 95,8% is arguable, and it is not essentially better than one of 90% either. Technicians know that biodegradation values above 80% are highly unreliable, often induced by system errors due to the unpredictability of the bacterial behaviour. This is something that should be explained to marketeers and copyrighters, such as to avoid communication problems and even legal ones.

In general, absolute claims are often used as a concealment for things which are there, but shouldn’t be perceived; or for things which are not there but should be perceived.

For the sake of clarity these absolute claims have been divided in different categories. All examples have been taken from commercial practice.

3.1 Absolute claims: Environmental

3.1.1 ‘No X, no Y, no Z’: the No-Code

Although far less than two to three decades ago, the ingredients which are claimed not to be in a product are still widely brought under the attention of the consumer. Most European countries have ruled out phosphates in laundry products, but many brands still come with the claim ’no phosphates’ as if that where an innovation or a special status.

When an ecological product formulation is deviating strongly from the conventional frame formulations there is nothing against making that clear – but it shouldn’t be the main claim. A product doesn’t get its credits by what is not in it.

In the following items some of the most used claims are listed and commented. Some of them are on the edge of legality and might under circumstances even lead to legal prosecution.

It is true that often one can understand what is really meant with these statements, but that doesn’t explain away the inappropriate and incorrect wording.

3.1.2 ‘No Toxins’

This a very tricky one: a toxin is a well defined category of chemicals which are harmful or lethal to humans and animals, and at times to the environment as well. Toxins are as a rule handled within a whole framework of security measures and most of them are not freely sold. No producer will knowingly and deliberately add toxins to a commodity product. Therefore, claiming that a commodity doesn’t contain toxins can be considered as fraudulent communication flat out and might attract legal actions from competitors or authorities.

3.1.3 ‘No environmentally hazardous substances’

Newer environmentally hazardous substances are relatively well documented as far as the actual state of science allows. The REACH program of the EU is working on a further completion of lacking data, but is confronted with having to research a massive 140.000 historical molecules from which some 40% is partially, and only a few percent fully documented. Except for those, nobody is able to give full account and certainty and one should not make such a claim.

Again, except for fraud cases, no producer will knowingly and deliberately add environmentally hazardous substances to their product.

3.1.4 ‘Only biodegradable substances’

The weak point here is the vagueness: the claim suggests that all ingredients included are biodegradable. With the average detergent as an example this is utterly impossible. All-purpose cleaners contain about 5% of active matter, next to 95% of water; dishwashing agents have some 20% of active and laundry products between 20 and 35%. Between 60 and 80% of a formula are water and other minerals, and 1-10% can be additives of all kinds. The amount of organic molecules (as in ’organic chemistry’) in a formula will rarely go beyond 30% and it is solely the organic content which is biodegradable; water and other minerals are not. Therefore, this claim leaves out a staggering 70% or the large majority of the ingredients, and can easily be seen as misleading the consumer.

3.1.5 ‘100% (of whatever)’

It probably is part of human nature that he wants to be 100% sure about things. When some object is made from wood, it is unclear what the advantage would be of calling it ’100% wood’, let be ’100% pure wood’. One can even find further extensions, such as ’100% pure natural wood’. It reminds of the 19th century Barnum way of handling things, where the one superlative was chased with another. It is most unlikely that some legal issue would be triggered by such a statement, but a well informed consumer will probably get very suspicious when reading this humbug. Having to explain this in front of a consumer audience is a nightmare.

When the communication on ingredients, products and company aims is clear and transparent, there is no need to use such meaningless superlatives on top of clear and precise wording.

3.1.6 ‘Bio-quality’

What is not meant with this statement is the organic (as in ’organic agriculture’) quality of the product, but something like ’compatible with living things’. It is a covert way to suggest something which isn’t there, and to hope that the reader will understand this suggested absent something to be a quality of the product. A superficial reader will catch the ’organic’ meaning of ’bio’ and happily think he discovered a bargain. In plain English: it’s greenwashing.

This practice is skilfully using a twilight zone in understanding as well as in legislation; it is unlikely that any court will see this as a law infringement and it will probably be judged to belong to creative marketing.

However, when we take the cause of organic agriculture serious, we cannot accept such tampering with half-truths and suggestive wording. A ’bio-quality’ really doesn’t mean anything decent and such wording should not be used.

3.1.7 ‘Pure’

This adjective is often combined with others to suggest a very high quality – which might not be there at all, under circumstances. In some cases it is mistakenly used to indicate the exclusive or sole use of something: ’pure wood’ would then mean ’wood only, nothing else’. There are more direct ways to say the same.

’Pure’ suggests also that there is an ’impure’ form of the same material, which would be less valuable.

In both cases the purpose is to point at the top level of value for money. We know the term from the jeweller’s world where ’pure gold’, ’pure silver’ or ’pure diamond’ are still of general use and are meaningful within this realm. Pure gold or silver were rather exceptional in the past, as the techniques to purify them where not well developed. Pure diamonds where even more exceptional, as diamonds could not be purified or corrected. But these characteristics do not make much sense outside of the jeweller’s realm and, once more, are mainly meant to mislead.

3.1.8 ‘Recycled’

Although its heydays are over, recycling is still in, and the fact that a product is based on, or partially using recycled materials is considered as a plus. Unfortunately the story is a bit more complicated. When, as an example, we want to use a bottle made from recycled polyethylene (PE) – one of the most common plastics and one of the most promising for the future – several negative elements pop up. The recycled PE will be soiled and dark in color; chemicals which it might contain could migrate into the product. We have to make a sandwich construction, with a layer of recycled PE caught between two layers of virgin material. The bottle will have a thicker wall and a higher weight, for a lesser mechanical resistance – not speaking about the problem of getting a continuous and sufficient supply of recyclable PE. Most of the applications which started this way have been abandoned.

That doesn’t mean this a lost cause, but the recycling as we will need it towards the future will have to be set up in a far more sophisticated and cooperative way. Besides, an environmentally questionable product in a recycled bottle is still an environmentally questionable product. Even when it is a substantial part of innovative procedures, recycling on itself cannot excuse away the lack of attention for more essential improvements at the level of the product.

3.2 Absolute claims: Health

3.2.1 ‘Kind to the skin, skin friendly’

This statement might be a basic one for cosmetic creams or lotions, but it is a contradictio in terminis for laundry and cleaning products, and even for washing (rinse-off) cosmetics. After all, cleaning products are meant to take away fatty deposits which might also contain protein leftovers and mineral particles – what we call dirt and what is called biofilm in the hygiene jargon.

It is difficult to imagine that a detergent should be able to make the distinction between human skin and other supports, let be to behave differently when in contact with either. A dishwashing agent will have a negative impact on human skin, even when it is a sustainable product; in the other case, it wouldn’t be a dishwashing agent, it wouldn’t do the dishes.

We have to accept that any product that contains surfactants – which are the workhorses of almost all detergents – has a certain impact on the skin. It lowers the surface tension, dissolves the lipid film, attacks the protein, dehydrates and makes the skin more permeable and less protective for the organism underneath. Measurements with Trans Epidermal Water Loss (TEWL) technology demonstrate that, depending on the type of product, the skin needs from one up to three hours to auto-restore its normal functions. That is also the case with shampoos and shower gels, hence the old rule ’short wash, long rinse’.

As little as we can have a knife which is finger-friendly (it wouldn’t cut), can we have a skin friendly cleaner or washing cosmetic (they wouldn’t clean or wash). At the utmost such a product can be neutral to the skin or ’skin neutral’, and even that would be questionable when speaking of a laundry or a dishwashing product; it’s obvious that they need to have a certain cleaning power that can by no means be friendly to the skin.

3.2.2 ‘Free of allergens’

It sounds weird, but there is no conclusive definition of the term ’allergen’. Some experts say it is a substance that generates an allergy, others say it is one that generates allergic reactions – which is quite different. The EU has a list of 26 substances (January 2013) which are called ’most occurring allergens’ and which have to be declared on the labels – but that list will soon be expanded to some 176 substances, and nobody knows what the next level will be.

One of the leading European experts is Prof. Dr. Zuberbier, allergologist and head of the allergy department at the Charité Clinic in Berlin. His approach is that an allergy is an individual reaction on whatever substance on this planet. Everyone can acquire an allergy at any time in his/her life and can get rid of it again at any time afterwards.

When we adhere to this point of view, every substance known to man can become a trigger for individual allergic reactions and for individual allergies, which makes it utterly impossible to have a product ’free of allergens’.

But even if we do not accept that approach, the continued spreading of allergic reactions makes that the number of substances which up to now did not generate allergic reactions, is becoming smaller and smaller. Products stating that they are ’free of allergens’ would have to be tested on hundreds of substances and would still miss out a whole lot. The only statement one could make is that none of the 26 (soon: 176) substances earmarked by the EU are in a given product – which will already be a nightmare for the R&D people. Therefore, ’free of allergens’ is a claim which cannot be substantiated.

3.2.3 ‘Hypoallergenic’

It sounds weird, but there is no conclusive definition of the term ’allergen’. Some experts say it is a substance that generates an allergy, others say it is one that generates allergic reactions – which is quite different. The EU has a list of 26 substances (January 2013) which are called ’most occurring allergens’ and which have to be declared on the labels – but that list will soon be expanded to some 176 substances, and nobody knows what the next level will be.

One of the leading European experts is Prof. Dr. Zuberbier, allergologist and head of the allergy department at the Charité Clinic in Berlin. His approach is that an allergy is an individual reaction on whatever substance on this planet. Everyone can acquire an allergy at any time in his/her life and can get rid of it again at any time afterwards.

When we adhere to this point of view, every substance known to man can become a trigger for individual allergic reactions and for individual allergies, which makes it utterly impossible to have a product ’free of allergens’.

But even if we do not accept that approach, the continued spreading of allergic reactions makes that the number of substances which up to now did not generate allergic reactions, is becoming smaller and smaller. Products stating that they are ’free of allergens’ would have to be tested on hundreds of substances and would still miss out a whole lot. The only statement one could make is that none of the 26 (soon: 176) substances earmarked by the EU are in a given product – which will already be a nightmare for the R&D people. Therefore, ’free of allergens’ is a claim which cannot be substantiated.

3.2.4 ‘Dangerous for health’

Again, no conscious producer will add deliberately and on purpose substances to their product when there is an inherent health risk linked to that ingredient. It is against the law to do that, first of all. It is one of those cheap tricks that unsustainable and unethical companies use to sell their own produce – which will then not contain this so-called dangerous substance, of course.

This trick is a.o. still used by the US company Neways, selling products without Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), a surfactant supposed to be ’dangerous for health’: it is said to be lethal for babies and to make you blind. Neither one is true. This company started the hoax more than a decade ago, have been put before court more than once, but still continue their malpractice.

In a similar way the European sugar and related industries blocked for decades the introduction of the Stevia plant as a sugar replacement in the EU market, with the argument that there was no scientific evidence for its innocuity. They didn’t tell the public though that Stevia was used since time immemorial by hundreds of millions of people in the whole of South America.

It is obvious that there are different concepts around on what is to be considered dangerous for health, and what not. But there is a huge difference between stating ’you should rather not use XYZ for health reasons’ and ’XYZ is dangerous for health’. In the first case you stick to a precautionary principle based on your own judgement. In the latter case you would need scientific evidence, but probably there will then already be a huge body of evidence to be found in literature.

4 Conclusion

The purpose of this text is to assist when editing texts related to subjects in a sustainable development context. It is obvious that when this context develops, the terminology will develop as well. What should not change though is the honesty, transparency and accuracy with which the content is conveyed to the end user.